In Europe, Sharing Moments With History

Share with others:


Print Email Read Later

IT'S common enough to get lost in European cities, with their narrow, winding streets that seem to have been traced by dazed sheep long before mass tourism; those confusing signs in strange languages; and locals who sometimes make a point of pretending not to understand, even when they do. But wandering aimlessly can be a goal in itself. How else would one stumble upon that extraordinary bakery, that antiques shop full of peculiar dolls, that amazing bistro and the occasional memorable scene -- a real Italian drug deal, a couple deep in the shadows, the perfect round Chinese face aglow in front of a poster of the Mona Lisa?

I've been fortunate enough to have been a foreign correspondent for most of the last 30 years -- in Europe, Southeast Asia, Russia, the Middle East, and back to Europe again, where I am now the chief of the Paris bureau. I've always tried to find a few spots of respite and contemplation that I can think of as my own. No one ever really stops being a tourist, I'm convinced, looking for that unique memory or connection that makes an iconic city seem personal, at least for a little while.

In cities like Paris, Berlin and Prague, I have been happy to find places where the urban buzz and crush of big crowds fades slowly away. Places where I can lose myself, that is.

That can happen in a park or garden, and in the middle of a city, too. But usually, for me, these moments of connection come from a confrontation with the past that produces a shock of comprehension, a sense of what an earlier world called "the great chain of being."

A fond memory: wandering around Versailles at closing time -- well, past it, actually, with the sun setting over the extraordinary gardens -- and stumbling upon the Hameau de la Reine, the bizarrely beautiful hamlet Marie Antoinette had built for herself. It was also a working farm, a place where she could pretend to be an ordinary milkmaid.

At the time, I wasn't sure where I was, and there was no one around. It felt both private and stolen: the beauty of the gardens; the absurdity of these mock-humble buildings in such rarefied surroundings; the tragedy of the queen, dressed as a peasant, with her milk buckets of Sèvres porcelain painted with her coat of arms. It's hard enough, no matter how much one has read, to get one's mind into the habits and patterns of someone so distant, so privileged and so thoroughly despised by history, her head cut off in the Place de la Révolution, which was renamed Concorde only as a gesture of reconciliation.

I have found a similar sense of peace and history in the Basilica of St.-Denis, in a busy, noisy, multiethnic northern suburb of Paris far from the embellishments, tourist crowds and hawkers of Notre-Dame. The church dates from the 12th century, and its beauty stems from the transition of the Romanesque to the Gothic. But my attraction is not to the architecture, but to the collection of royal tombs. This is where nearly all the kings of France and their families are buried, and where the headless corpses of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette also, finally, came to rest.

The tombs and sarcophagi are beautiful, in their way, but also serve as a kind of memento mori in the largest sense. These all-powerful individuals, who were thought to have been invested by God, were in death treated worse than peasants. During the revolution, the corpses were dug up, buried in mass graves and covered with lime. Napoleon reopened the church but left the bones where they were; only in 1817 were the pits opened and the bits of royal skeletons, all jumbled together, moved to an ossuary in the church. And only in 2004 was the mummified heart of the dauphin -- who was to have been Louis XVII, but was imprisoned from the age of 7 until his death at 10 -- brought to rest in a crypt in the church.

During the revolution, the tombs themselves were saved in the name of art, while the bodies were desecrated in the name of equality, fraternity and liberty. Worth a thought, perhaps, and worth a visit, especially when one emerges to see a more realistic contemporary Paris: poorer, more ethnically diverse, more Muslim and in most ways more vivid than what one encounters on the Rue de Rivoli or in St.-Germain.

There are similar spots all over Europe where my memories and history collide. On a winter evening in Prague, after months covering the Kosovo war, I wandered through the crammed, broken-toothed headstones of the Jewish cemetery, where the rabbi who is said to have created the Golem -- a clay monster to protect the Jews of Prague -- is buried. Prague is an eerie place, a Jewish city without Jews, with ghosts and golems emerging from behind the now brightly painted facades of what is Europe's most beautiful and haunted city.

In Berlin, another haunted city, which I first visited in 1981, there is the much-criticized memorial to the Holocaust by Peter Eisenman, the stones at odd angles like the cemetery in Prague. The memorial is wrongly criticized; one simply has to go there and see how Berliners, not just tourists, use the place. Sitting on the stone slabs, no one can forget what they represent. Even amid so many visitors, deep in the maze of those slabs, some of which rise far above your head as the earth tips away, you can feel very lost, very alone, and grateful to experience a different Europe, a different Germany.

One of my favorite places in Berlin is far more obscure -- an unassuming building that lies deep in eastern Berlin. The building, once the officers' mess for the German Army, was where the Soviet Army established its headquarters in April 1945 and accepted Nazi Germany's capitulation, on the night of May 8. The surrender marked the real end of the European war in which so many millions died.

Until 1994, the building was maintained by the Soviets, with a tank outside, some exhibits and a plaque. Now it sits forlornly, a kind of Ozymandias relic, "a testament," Martha Kuhlman of Bryant University once wrote, "to a Germany that no longer exists, owned by a Russia that no longer exists." But it is also a reminder of what the Soviet Union sacrificed to defeat the Nazis, as one form of fascism finally devoured another, and the hot war became the cold war that divided Europe and marked so much of my early career. With the awkward rapprochement with Moscow, the name has been changed from the Museum of Unconditional Surrender -- a name that provoked one fine writer, the Croatian Dubravka Ugresic, into using it as a title for a moving novel of exile and history -- to the distinctly unimaginative German-Russian Museum Berlin-Karlshorst.

AMSTERDAM is one of Europe's oddities -- the beauty of the canals, the bicyclists shooting along like rockets, the steady reminder of the power of water and wind. Its narrow streets and bridges can be packed with tourists, but there is at least one small area of respite.

The Begijnhof is one of the few remaining interior courtyards of Amsterdam and contains the city's oldest house, Het Houten Huys (the wooden house), believed to date from 1420 or so. It has a timber front, one of only two such timber houses remaining in Amsterdam. It reminds me of one of Vermeer's most unusual paintings, a street scene called "The Little Street," visible today in Amsterdam's incomparable Rijksmuseum. The courtyard was reserved for the Béguines, an order of Roman Catholic lay sisters, who were not nuns but vowed chastity.

Today, the courtyard is a shock of quiet, with pretty houses around a large patch of lawn. Near the low entrance are two facing churches, one Roman Catholic and one English Reformed. Both hold services and small concerts. But in a reflection of the religious wars that once ripped across Europe (and that, inevitably, remind me of the Middle East today), the English church was once the Catholic one, handed over to the Protestants. The Catholic chapel was founded later, in secret.

A grave just off the brick path contains the remains of one Béguine (Begijn in Dutch), Cornelia Arens, who died in 1654. Rather than be laid to rest in the original Catholic church, which she considered "desecrated" by Presbyterians, she chose to be buried in the gutter of the courtyard. I admire her fierceness, her conviction, her self-abnegation and, yes, her contempt.

But historic sites aren't the only places where I have lost myself. A well-run restaurant can do the trick. Given this theme of history and beauty, I would suggest taking a long wander through the gardens of Paris's Palais-Royal, where Napoleon was said to have had his first sexual experience, with one of the prostitutes who frequented the spot. Then leave the world behind and have lunch with a loved one at Le Grand Véfour, at the northwestern edge of the Palais-Royal. One of the capital's oldest restaurants -- said to date from 1784 -- its walls are fashioned of boiserie, mirrors and lush paintings of game, fish and flowers under glass. It is not only among the capital's prettiest restaurants, it also has two Michelin stars and is run with discretion, elegance and even some charm. Have something extraordinary like turbot or St.-Pierre (John Dory), or the restaurant's famous foie gras ravioli with a truffled cream sauce.

Of course there will be a bill to pay, and as in all expensive Paris restaurants, your neighbors may speak your own language. But for a few hours, you can happily lose yourself in an utterly artificial world that also marks a moment of high civilization.

STEVEN ERLANGER is chief of the Paris bureau of The Times.

travel

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

You have 2 remaining free articles this month

Try unlimited digital access

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here

You’ve reached the limit of free articles this month.

To continue unlimited reading

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here