A Birthday among the Ancient Rocks of Stonehenge

On my fiftieth birthday, I become a pilgrim to Stonehenge. On the evening I arrive, Wiltshire’s wide landscape is swept by a downpour and epic winds. The gates are closed, and all the day-tourists have hurried to pubs or their B&Bs to escape the midsummer storm. It is the after-hours entry time, and I clasp my special, advanced reservation like a golden ticket.

Stonehenge after the rain. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Stonehenge after the rain. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Weatherworn and rain-soaked, I am one of a tribe of twenty-six people huddling silently in the dusky gloom as a guard unhooks the rope that separates the public from the stones. I am pulled into the circle, toward these broad-shouldered behemoths of Salisbury Plain. Miraculously, the rain has stopped, though the last drops continue to drain off my raincoat, streaking my rain-pants and darkening my brown hiking-boot leather with bloodlike splotches.

The evening sun is swaddled in clouds; the filtered light is heavy and otherworldly. I walk beside the stones—the lichen-covered stones—so mottled they look hairy. More shadow than surface. Every blade of the hallowed grass is a slim, green knife too vivid to be real.

After fifty years of seeing photos of Stonehenge, I now stand so close I can smell the musk of ancient rock and the ever-so-slight perfume of damp bluebells. But no touching the stones. No hugging them. No climbing. No eating, drinking, or smoking. No indecent activities—in other words, no copulation or pagan fertility rites. The wary guards insure compliance.

©Laurel Kallenbach.jpg

©Laurel Kallenbach

Yet I have an entire hour to stroke Stonehenge with my eyes: veins of minerals through the sarsen slabs, shards of broken rock, crust of lichen, etched signatures from bygone centuries.

Walking beneath a giant lintel stone, I feel that I have stepped through a portal into the second stage of my life—into a land of uncertainty. At fifty, I’m veiny and far less statuesque than I care to admit. Silver hairs sprout with abandon. My joints complain. Sleep eludes me.

I cross my fingers before each mammogram and every cholesterol test. I have no faith in my own crumbling edifice—certainly not the kind of faith that it takes to build in stone. Faith that’s bolstered by generation after generation who studied the stars and who marked the sun’s rising and setting year after year. Who, like me, witnessed purple-and-black thunderheads roil and move on.

Center of the stones ©Laurel Kallenbach

Center of the stones ©Laurel Kallenbach

Even for those ancient people, the patient watchers of time, there came a day when they split the plain with flint axes, cleaving the wormy soil on a wind-swept plateau. “This is where we buttress the forty-ton rock,” they announced. “Here we build. This is where we begin.”

For millennia, people have come to Stonehenge for reasons we can only guess. For solstices? For healing? For community? My own motives are surprisingly vague as well. I believe I was called to this mythic place—that somehow Stonehenge will be my cornerstone for the decades to come. This is where I begin again.

Inside the stone circle. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Inside the stone circle. ©Laurel Kallenbach

I sink onto the damp ground in the center of a horseshoe of six-foot-high bluestones: an inner ring of dolerite rocks transported hundreds of miles from western Wales. The trilithons in front of me are bone-white against the brooding clouds. Stillness.

What is there to discover here? Dirt, grass, stone, sky. Permanence, impermanence. I simply sit and breathe in my own half-century. Nothing I can do or make will be here in five thousand years. By then, I’ll be as mysterious and invisible as the builders of Stonehenge and all those who have come before me.

 ©Laurel Kallenbach

©Laurel Kallenbach

Rocks have been raised; rocks have fallen. Some face the east; some open to the west. Looking north across the A344 highway is the Avenue, the processional pathway that people once walked to reach Stonehenge from the River Avon.

Next year, the petrol-infused asphalt of the A344 will be torn out, and once again the stone circle will be reunited with the Avenue. Its passage stones, those proud sentries, have disappeared. Cracked and dissected, they were carted off to become chunks of farm fences. But the Avenue’s footprint on the land remains, and the memory of stones points to the horizon, through rippling fields of barley that beckon “this way.”

I sight through the linteled megaliths, over the toppled Slaughter Stone, and beyond the Heel Stone to that ghost of a walkway. My hour here has passed; the sun, shrouded in clouds, has set without fanfare. No farewell display of amber or vermillion streaks the sky. This one day—significant only to me as the anniversary of my birth—is nearly done. Tomorrow, the sun will illuminate a new road—a whisper of a way—for me to travel.

A guard calls. It is time for me to rise and depart this temple of the grasslands. It is time to feel my own legs beneath me, strong and solid—though not as hard as rock. I leave behind no monument, no marker—but if these stones are ancient dreams made solid, then perhaps my hopes for the future will join the circle. I touch my lips to my fingers and offer a kiss to the wet, joyful earth.

—Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Note: Since 2013, when I wrote this, Stonehenge has undergone “renovation.” The highway has been removed, and a new museum has been created. For information about visiting Stonehenge, visit the English Heritage website.

©Laurel Kallenbach

©Laurel Kallenbach

Washington’s Cherry Blossoms Symbolize International Friendship

America’s greatest springtime festival is without a doubt the National Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington, D.C. There’s a parade, a kite festival, a humdinger of an opening ceremony (featuring musicians from around the globe), numerous arts performances, special exhibitions at the Smithsonian museums that line the National Mall, and even merchandise like posters, lapel pins, T-shirts, and more. Tourism surges as people visit from all over the world to greet the pink blossoms that herald the arrival of spring.

The Washington Monument framed by cherry blossoms ©Laurel Kallenbach

The Washington Monument framed by cherry blossoms ©Laurel Kallenbach

Behind all the hoopla are the cherry trees themselves, and they represent the enduring friendship between the people of the United States and Japan. Each year, the National Cherry Blossom Festival commemorates the 1912 gift of 3,020 cherry trees from the mayor of Tokyo to the city of Washington D.C. In March of that year, First Lady Helen Taft and the wife of the Japanese ambassador, Viscountess Chinda, together planted the first two trees from Japan on the north bank of the Tidal Basin in West Potomac Park. (Mrs. Taft had lived in Japan and was familiar with the beauty of the flowering cherry trees, so she helped facilitate the gift from Japan.)

Cherry blossoms along the Tidal Basin in Washington, DC ©Laurel Kallenbach

Cherry blossoms along the Tidal Basin in Washington, DC ©Laurel Kallenbach

The trees were just the first of the many gifts that have been exchanged between the two countries. In 1915, the United States reciprocated by shipping flowering dogwood trees to the people of Japan.

After the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, the U.S.–Japanese friendship was strained, but after WWII, the nations again reached out in peace. A 17th-century granite pagoda statue arrived from the mayor of Yokohama, Japan, in 1957 to commemorate the original Treaty of Peace and Amity between Japan and America, which was signed in Yokohama in 1854. The Pagoda statue was also erected along the Tidal Basin (near the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial), and it’s appropriately surrounded by the cherry trees.

Say It with Flowers

The Tidal Basin is one of the best places to see the cherry blossoms, especially in the context of patriotic monuments. By strolling along the banks of the Tidal Basin, tens of thousands of people every year are rewarded with gorgeous views of national memorials, including the Jefferson Memorial, the Washington Monument, the FDR Memorial and the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial.

The Jefferson Memorial ©Laurel Kallenbach

The Jefferson Memorial ©Laurel Kallenbach

My husband and I walked about three-quarters of the entire loop trail to admire the blossoms and to listen to some of the small ensembles from the Boulder Philharmonic who were playing near several of the monuments. (The orchestra, which Ken plays in, was one of four invited to perform at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts as part of the SHIFT Festival for American Orchestras.)

There were crowds of people out on sunny, but windy, day, including numerous visitors from Japan. It was delightful seeing people, whose country gave us these trees, snapping selfies in front of the monuments.

Taking selfies with the cherry blossoms ©Laurel Kallenbach

Taking selfies with the cherry blossoms ©Laurel Kallenbach

As Ken and I walked, we paused at the monuments to read the inspiring words of the great men of our nation who are commemorated along the Tidal Basin. At the beautiful FDR Memorial, which comprises bronze artwork and waterfalls, two quotes by our 32nd president stood out for me.

The first was “We must scrupulously guard the civil rights and civil liberties of all our citizens, whatever their background. We must remember that any oppression, any injustice, any hatred, is a wedge designed to attack our civilization” (January 9, 1940). The second Roosevelt quote that struck me was, “Men and nature must work hand in hand. The throwing out of balance of the resources of nature throws out of balance also the lives of men” (January 24, 1935).

(You can read some of the immortal words of Martin Luther King, Jr. in my post about that monument).

Violinist Jennifer Carsillo and Michael Gutterman (the Boulder Phil conductor) perform beside the Jefferson Monument. ©Ken Aikin

Violinist Jennifer Carsillo and Michael Gutterman (the Boulder Phil conductor) perform beside the Jefferson Monument. ©Ken Aikin

And of course, at the Thomas Jefferson Monument, our third president’s words from the Declaration of Independence rang loud and true, although at the time he wrote them, the “created equal” part applied only to white men: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

All my life I’ve been hearing about the wonders of the Cherry Blossom Festival, but the beauty of the trees, their flowers, the water, the wide sky, and the patriotic monuments really must be seen to be believed. Not only is the festival a tribute to history and nature, it celebrates the very concept of international harmony. What could be more inspiring and uplifting?

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Banks of blossoms in front of the Washington Monument ©Laurel Kallenbach

Banks of blossoms in front of the Washington Monument ©Laurel Kallenbach

3 Artsy Reasons to Visit Dresden’s Theater Square

February is not the most popular month to visit Dresden—the glittering Christmas Market is long gone, and there are no summery flower boxes or outdoor cafés. But for music and museum lovers like me, winter is a thrilling time to visit this musical city.

Dresden's Semper Opera House on the Theaterplatz Photo by Christoph Muench, courtesy Dresden Marketing Board

Dresden’s Semper Opera House on the Theaterplatz. Photo by Christoph Muench, courtesy Dresden Marketing Board

One of my primary reasons to travel to Dresden was to attend a performance in its world-renowned Semper Opera House, which simultaneously juggles at least three operas, a ballet, and orchestra concerts during the winter months. Before I departed in early February, I peeked at a map of Dresden’s historic Old Town (Altstadt) and was thrilled that the opera house located in the heart of the historic city.

In fact, the entire square, the Theaterplatz, is named for the venerated opera house. Dresden’s Old Town contains many architectural and cultural gems, and some of the most spectacular are concentrated in the Theaterplatz, including the glorious Rococo-style Zwinger Palace, home to several fantastic museums.

Though there are many other gorgeous and historic buildings and churches to enjoy in Dresden, you can’t go wrong starting in Theater Square. There were three sites in the Theater Square that I particularly enjoyed: The Zwinger, the Old Masters Picture Gallery, and the opera house itself.

Sculptures on the Zwinger pavilion ©Laurel Kallenbach

Sculptures at the Zwinger Palace ©Laurel Kallenbach

1. The Zwinger

What’s a “zwinger”? The word sounds like a hip nightclub, and back in the early 1700s when it was built, Dresden’s Zwinger was indeed an 18th-century party venue for the aristocracy.

“Zwinger” is an Old German word that refers to an area between a castle’s walls and the outer fortress walls. Dresden’s ornate Zwinger, often called the Zwinger Palace, was originally designed as an orangery and a setting for court festivities. It was later used for exhibitions; today it houses several museums.

Dresden’s Zwinger Palace is known for its beautiful baroque architecture, which, as you can see from the photos, means there are lots and lots of showy arches, curlicues, floral motifs, fountains, walkways, and Greek-inspired statutes.

The porcelain bells mounted in the Zwinger Glockenspiel Pavilion The porcelain bells chime on the half-hour. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The porcelain bells mounted in the Zwinger Glockenspiel Pavilion chime on the half-hour. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The Zwinger is an ideal place to stroll on a nice day—and it’s free to the public. At the southeast end of the Zwinger’s courtyard is the Carillon/Glockenspiel Pavilion with a collection of white glockenspiel bells made of porcelain by the famous Meissen factory. The bells play a tune every half-hour, which usually attracts a bit of a crowd.

The Nymph Garden and Crown Gate are filled with enchanting mythological sculptures and fountains (which were dry during my visit in February).

Statues in the Zwinger Palace ©Laurel Kallenbach

Ice-cold statues of naked goddesses in the Zwinger Palace ©Laurel Kallenbach

I would have loved to linger in the Zwinger for longer than I did, but a chilly wind was blowing, and all the unclad goddesses made me feel even colder. I vowed to return to Dresden in summer, when flowers and fountains and weather would be brilliant.

Luckily, the Zwinger Palace houses wonderful museums (entry fees apply): the Dresden Porcelain Collection, the Mathematics and Physics Museum, and the Old Masters Picture Gallery. It was into this last museum that I hurried in to warm up.

2. Old Masters Picture Gallery

This museum, in the Semper building adjoining the Zwinger, contains one of the world’s most important collection of paintings dating from the baroque and Renaissance period. The 700-piece collection was started 300 years ago by Augustus II the Strong, who built the Zwinger, along with a lot of the baroque structures in Old Town Dresden, the capital of Saxony.

Raphael's "Sistine Madonna" at the Old Master's Gallery

Raphael’s “Sistine Madonna” at the Old Master’s Gallery

The most famous painting in the Old Masters Picture Gallery (Gemäldegalerie Alter Meister) is Raphael’s “Sistine Madonna,” which I wanted to see mostly because of the two comical cupids at the Virgin’s feet. Their image is so popular that it appears on refrigerator magnets, greeting cards, and blank journal books.

Apparently the exasperated cherubs’ fame has also reached the Far East, because when I arrived in the chamber with the wall-sized Madonna, a group of Japanese tourists was getting their pictures taken in front of the painting—first individually, then in pairs, and finally many different exposures and arrangements of the entire group at once. I wanted to get closer to the painting to see the cherubs in detail, but I didn’t want to spoil anyone’s pictures. The photo session took so long that I gave up and went in search of some other art.

The Renaissance painters, Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472–1553) and his son Lucas Cranach the Younger (1515–1586), saved the day. Paintings by the younger Cranach were so detailed and realistic that they looked more like photographs than oils.

I was enthralled by “David and Bathsheba,” which focused on Bathsheba and her handmaidens, one of whom has turned and stares straight at the viewer. Though the scene is biblical, the women were dressed in Renaissance garb. I thought the painting was mistitled because King David was nowhere to be seen. At the last minute, when I was moving on to look at the next painting, I spotted in the upper left-hand corner a man wearing a crown high in a castle tower. King David was almost out of the picture, but we could still see his lusty stare!

"Paradise" by Lucas Cranach the Elder in Old Masters Gallery

“Paradise” by Lucas Cranach the Elder in The Old Masters Picture Gallery

Cranach the Elder’s depiction of the Garden of Eden accentuated pairs of animals, including unicorns (on the far right). Adam and Eve are in the background; that story is overly told, but the animals in Paradise were a refreshing twist.

It would have been easy to spend a couple of hours in the Old Masters Gallery, but I had just an hour. With more time, I would have looked up Vermeer’s “Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window”—and maybe I would have returned to the Raphael “Madonna” when there were fewer people.

3. Semper Opera House

As a musician, I was drawn most of all to the iconic Semper Opera House, which for me is a temple of music—the equivalent of visiting a great cathedral. Even if you’re not an opera fan, the opera house is worth touring for its stunning architecture and ornate interior. It’s also home to the Saxon State Opera, the Saxon State Orchestra, and the Semperoper Ballet.

The posh theater in the Semper Opera House. Photo courtesy Visit Dresden

The posh theater in the Semper Opera House. Photo courtesy Visit Dresden

I took a 45-minute tour given in English of the magnificent building, during which I learned about its three incarnations. Originally built in 1841 by architect Gottfried Semper, the opera house wowed audiences throughout Europe. The brilliant (and anti-Semitic) composer Richard Wagner was one of its early music directors. Three of Wagner’s operas premiered at the Semper Opera House: Rienzi, The Flying Dutchman, and Tannhäuser.

Unfortunately, the opera house burned down in 1869 and didn’t reopen in its full glory until 1878, when it was reconstructed according to another of Semper’s designs.

A beautifully decorated ceiling at the Semperoper with Apollo and his swan. ©Laurel Kallenbach

A beautifully decorated ceiling at the Semperoper with Apollo and his swan. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The second opera house was almost entirely destroyed during the bombing of Dresden in 1945. It took 40 years to rebuild, but in the 1980s, restorers painstakingly recreated nearly every detail of the former structure—plus they added more comfortable seating with better sight lines, modern heating/air conditioning, and state-of-the-art stage machinery.

When I walked through the halls and beheld the elaborately painted ceilings, the chandeliers, and the statues of singers and composers, I understood why the acoustically excellent Semper Opera House is also consideed one of the world’s loveliest. Though the 1980s reconstruction took place under the East German communist government, attention to detail was perfect, although many of the special craftsmen who knew how to create such wonderful finishes were gone.

Inside the glorious Semper Opera House ©Laurel Kallenbach

Intermission at the glorious Semper Opera House ©Laurel Kallenbach

The balustrades are made of serpentine stone, and the green “marble” pillars are actually built from brick covered with plaster, glue, and paint—then polished so that they gleam like marble. The giant chandelier in the theater weighs 1.9 tons and can be lowered from the ceiling so that it can be cleaned and its 258 light bulbs changed.

Theater tour in English at the Dresden Opera House

Theater tour in English at the Dresden Opera House

My guide took the tour group into the theater, where stagehands were preparing for the next show. They attached scenery to the stage’s fly system, and the orchestra pit had been raised to stage level so that they could roll in the celeste for the night’s performance. (A celeste is keyboard instrument that plays the glockenspiel part for the character of Papageno in Mozart’s The Magic Flute. (Most people are familiar with the celeste’s best-known solo, “The Waltz of the Sugarplum Fairy” in The Nutcracker ballet.)

That night, I attended The Magic Flute performance at the Semper Opera House, a beautifully sung production set in a modern fantasyland that was half Edward Scissorhands and half Pee-wee’s Playhouse. The theater was packed; the Germans really support the opera with enthusiastic attendance.

A pre-show view of "The Magic Flute" at the Semper Opera House ©Laurel Kallenbach

A pre-show view of “The Magic Flute” at the Semper Opera House ©Laurel Kallenbach

From my seats in the 1st Ring, I could see and hear wonderfully, and the supertitles—the lyrics projected above the stage—were in both English and German, so it was easy to know what the characters were singing.

Most notable was the Queen of the Night’s aria, a stratospherically high and notoriously difficult part sung by a coloratura soprano. The performer’s mouth opened wider than I’ve ever seen before, but her pitches were bright and true. It was breathtaking, and the applause was thunderous when she finished. Attending an opera in the spectacular Semper Opera House was an unforgettable experience.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

The Semper Opera House at night. Courtesy Dresden Marketing Board

The Semper Opera House at night. Photo courtesy Dresden Marketing Board

 

Christmas Market Dazzles in Wiesbaden, Germany

I grew up with a lot of German Christmas traditions, and for years I’ve thought going to a Christmas market in Germany, would be fun way to kick off the season. My hunch was right: Germany knows how to celebrate Christmas in an Old World way.

Wiesbaden’s Old Town Square fills with people enjoying the annual Christmas Market. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Wiesbaden, just a half-hour train ride from Frankfurt, hosts the lovely Sternschnuppen Market (sternschnuppe translates as “shooting star”). I was enthralled at its beauty, which combines traditional seasonal décor with contemporary lily-shaped light sculptures above the marketplace. (The lily, or fleur-de-lis, is on the town’s motif.) The whole affair—wooden huts where vendors sell foods and handcrafts—is held in the old town’s historic square, in the shadow of the church, or Marktkirche.

Tree ornaments are just some of the goods for sale at the Christmas Market. ©Laurel Kallenbach

At the annual market, locals and tourists alike gather to hear live music—one night I caught a quartet of alphorns (you just don’t hear that every day in the States!)—to shop, to mingle, and to toast the season with glühwein (hot, mulled wine sold in specially designed mugs that you either keep as a souvenir or return for your deposit).

Tempting Christmas cookies sold at the Sternschnuppen Market, Wiesbaden. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Flavors of Christmas

I quickly discovered that German Christmas Markets and glühwein go hand in hand. When the temperatures drop, nothing warms you more than a mug of steaming red or white glühwein held between your mittens while you sip and chat with friends while admiring the Christmas lights.

And who can resist the aromas of cooking? There are plenty of traditional market foods as well, including bratwurst and other sausages of various kinds and sizes, and potato pancakes (kartoffelpuffer) served with applesauce.

The Germans are passionate about sausages. Giant grills cooked all types of bratwurst, including the long, half-meter brats (cut in half to fit them on a bun. ©Laurel Kallenbach

I tasted these yummy, crisp-fried treats with Wiesbaden’s mayor, who happened to be at the Puffer Christ’l stand at the same time as I was. Owner Christl Glöckner joined us and brought some white glühwein for us to share.

Through my handy translator and guide Yvonne Skala, of Wiesbaden Marketing, the newly elected mayor told me one of the things that makes the city’s Christmas Market so special is that the organizers select vendors who sell handmade or German-made crafts.” No “Made in China” stickers here.

Mayor (Oberbürgermeister) Sven Gerich and Christl Glöckner, owner of Puffer Christ’l potato pancake food truck, toast to the Wiesbaden Christmas Market with some glühwein. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Indeed, as I browsed the huts, I found traditional ornaments, carvings, candles, nutcrackers, knitted gloves and hats, handmade lace, wooden toys, local cheeses and game, and more. For amusement, there’s a colorful, Baroque-style carousel for kids of all ages to ride.

Presiding over all the festivities is the high-spired, Marktkirche church, built in the mid-1800s.

As a special treat, Yvonne took me to the daily weekday 5:45 organ music inside this Protestant church. We sat in one of the pews and gazed at the star-painted ceilings and neo-Gothic arches while the organist pulled out all the stops on the pipe organ. Compared to the revelries outside, it’s a welcome, contemplative timeout for some reflection on the quieter side of Christmas. Visitors are welcome to stay for the following Advent church service, but we continued out into the marketplace.

Wooden incense smokers ©Laurel Kallenbach

Shelter and Relaxation

I stayed in posh digs in Wiesbaden: the Hotel Nassauer Hof, a historic hotel that has hosted the likes of Kaiser Wilhelm II, Tsar Nicholas II, John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, the Dalai Lama, and Vladimir Putin. Among the hotel’s many attributes was a location just a five-minute walk from the Christmas Market.

Another plus was that the Nassauer Hof has its own thermal spring, which feeds into the hotel pool. The result is naturally warmed mineral water, slightly salty, which buoys you up. Floating in heated water was the perfect antidote to several hours at the chilly outdoor market.

Another way to warm up during the Wiesbaden winter is in the saunas, steam rooms, and mineral baths at the Kaiser-Friedrich-Therme. This spa is built on the ruins of the ancient Roman baths, and the current baths were built in 1913, and restored for the centenary. I’ll blog more about this later, but it’s a truly unique place to visit and “take the waters.”

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

(Originally posted on December 21, 2103)

Read more about Germany’s Christmas markets:

The stage at the center of the market often has live performances, such as the four alphorn players I listened to. ©Laurel Kallenbach