nina on the go

Stories of this Canadian girl's adventures exploring Europe...join me!

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

an enchanted place...melk abbey, austria

There is a place upon a hill overlooking the Danube, just a stone's throw from Vienna, which as soon as I stepped foot upon its grounds it held my breath.

"Ora et Labora et Lege" - Pray, Work, Learn.

Melk Abbey stands guard at the entrance of Austria's enchanting Wachau region, an area dotted with cathedrals and steep vineyards, glistening with elegance and fascinating history. This Benedictine Abbey, which surely is one of the most beautiful in the world, is home to two of my now-favourite buildings...a library like no other, and a garden pavillion out of a fairytale. Take a look...

But first, as you enter the Abbey's imposing inner square, a series of modern murals representing the four virtues (wisdom, justice, temperance, and fortitude) will catch your eye almost immediately, juxtaposed against the Abbey's  Baroque facade.

The Abbey itself dates back to 1089 when a group of Benedictine monks were gifted a castle by Leopold II of Austria. This explains in part the opulence of the home of such a simple people. What the monks did with their generous gift was to immediately put it to good work, creating a monastic school and library, both of which are still in existence today and continue to be renowned institutions.

Many of the Baroque additions and renovations were undertaken between 1702 and 1736, but because of the Abbey's international reputation for education and its well-known extensive collection of manuscripts, the buildings were spared from countless wars, confiscations and conflicts in the centuries which have since followed.

I highly recommend taking a guided tour when you visit because of the volume of interesting stories and historical information that you will hear. It costs 13€/adult and includes the Abbey church, library and gorgeous marble hall...all worth the price.

The staircase leading up to the 196 m long Kaisersall (Imperial Hall)

I love libraries...always have. Some of my earliest happy memories are sitting at the feet of my elementary school librarian and listening to her read to us. So, whenever I visit a new place, I try to pop into a library. I especially love the smell of old books...the well-worn covers, the musty pages filled with tales and wisdom, and the millions of fingerprints from long-gone souls. For some reason, this all inspires me to no end.

"Pray, work, learn" - the highly regarded Abbey library

The Abbey library does not disappoint. I snuck a couple of unflashed photos because I absolutely wanted to be able to remember these rooms. Over the centuries, the library has amassed a collection of 100,000 books and manuscripts, including 750 printed before 1500 AD!

The Abbey, especially the library, was the centre of the 'Melk Reform Movement' in the 15th century, a sort of counter reformation building on Jesuit teachings. The monks held the library in such high regard, second only to the church, that they commissioned Paul Troger to paint the incredible ceiling fresco. The centrepiece of the painting is a female representation of faith, surrounded by four groups of angels again depicting the virtues of wisdom, temperance, fortitude and justice.

I have to confess, one of the details which enchants me most about castles and historical rooms, such as libraries, is the almost certain occurance of stumbling upon a tiny door. Okay, 'tiny' might not be the right word, and I'm jumping the gun if I make an 'Alice in Wonderland' comparison, but the small, often hidden or unnoticeable doors secretively blending into a wall of books or nestled into the floorboards fill me with a whimsical, fairytale-y feeling.

This particular door seen above had, as I found out during the tour, an interesting but unfortunately, fairly boring purpose. On the other side of it is a very large ceramic stove for heating the inner room. These little doors, which almost every room in the Abbey has, allowed the house staff to fill the stove with wood from the outside hallway without bothering (and dirtying) the room's inhabitants. Nonetheless...I still find them enchanting.

The Marble Hall from the outside

The Abbey church, and believe me, to call it a 'church' seems to do it an injustice, is impressive. It seems, for lack of a better word, strange to walk into such an opulent cathedral-like place of worship while visiting the home of Benedictine monks. I mean, St Benedictine charged his followers to live simply, dedicating their prayer (obviously), their work and their life-long journey of education to the glory of God.

And therein lies most likely the reason behind the incredible ceiling frescoes and altar paintings (7 famed masters of their time were commissioned to decorate the church in 1722) glorify God.

But, what also struck me during my visit through the Abbey is that the monks were, and continue to be, just plain smart. They have, over the centuries, with hard work and incredible dedication, built a compound for everyone to fall in love with; a school offering high quality education, scholarly achievements to research and study, and an incredibly beautiful tourist destination that everyone wants to visit!

The Abbey Park and Garden Pavillion are part of this gorgeous visiting experience. I fell in love with the pavillion, designed as part of the Baroque park in 1750 as a place of relaxation for the monks.

Only since the year 2000 has this area been open to the public, and it is now a highlight. The park includes a 'Garden of Paradise', a 'Jardin Méditerranéen', a meditational path with an incredible view over the Danube and 250 year-old Linden trees.

Inside the pavillion, the beauty continues, with fantastical exotic frescoes climbing across the walls. Johann Bergl's creations in the two window-filled rooms are rife with plants, animals, jungle themes, and native people, instilling a longing to learn about and to explore far-off lands.

But look up and you will again be transported to the Baroque scenes of the heavens. Really, it is such a dreamy building.

When your time at Melk Abbey comes to an end, you will be sent off with the parting words, "Höre und du wirst ankommen" - a blessing reminding us to stop and listen, to come to peace in order to know you have arrived.

St. Benedictine encouraged his faithful to never stop beginning - in prayer, in work, in learning. To always dedicate oneself anew to living a life in peace with God and with others. He taught that living compatibly within community, to ask forgiveness and to come clean whenever needed, glorifies God and allows us to focus on that what is important. Melk inspiring place indeed.

Listen and you will arrive

If you go, you should know:

For opening times, prices and interesting information about all of the rooms in Abbey in case you forget some of the details after your visit (like I did):

How-to-get-there information, including hiking trails and boat tours in the area:


Saturday, June 30, 2018

the berlin airlift...good vs evil using committment and candy bombers

Years before the Wall divided, and years after Hitler died, there was an event which united...not just the city of Berlin, but many cities, countries and people, with one goal. To fly. To help. To feed. 

Two million women, men and children were stranded., shut off from the rest of the world, for 10 whole months in West Berlin. 1948.

A portion of the still-standing wall at the East Side Gallery
June marked 70 years since the beginning of the Berlin Airlift, when Russian military forces blocked all land and rail transports into West Berlin. A very complicated and highly exhaustive coordinated response swiftly followed, with pilots from the British, French, American, Australian, and South African Air Forces flying up to 1400 flights a day.

Templehof Airport

Food, medical supplies, mail, and most importantly, coal were flown daily in a round-the-clock series of flights from the Rhein-Main and Hamburg/Hannover regions of West Germany, landing every 90 seconds at 3 airports in the western sector of Berlin.

Photo: Boris Roessler/DPA
One incredibly poignant part of this story is the one of Captain Gail Halverson who, as a personal statement against Stalin and the Russian regime, began throwing out parachutes of chocolate bars and candy as he flew over the neighbourhoods of West Berlin. As children and families began to notice this pattern, Captain Halverson would wiggle his plane's wings whenever he returned, as a signal of the sweet treats fallling from the sky. Soon his colleagues joined in and children would swarm in anticipation when seeing 'Uncle Wiggly Wings' flying low overhead. These planes were given the name of 'raisin bombers' (Rosinen Bomber)...honoring a mission which brought hope and light into a cold and dark community.

Photo: Picture-Alliance/DPA

As the airlift began in June 25th 1948, the western Allied forces thought that it would at most last 4-6 weeks. But it soon became clear that Stalin was going to hold out, in the belief that the Berliners would never put up with being cold and hungry, and would agree with forcing the Allieds out of West Berlin. The mayor of West Berlin, Ernst Reuter, gave a passionate plea to more than 350,000 West Berliners gathered in a public standing against Russia, to be resilient and for the world not to forget them. Reuter assured the Allieds that the Berliners would put up with only 1800 calories a day, would walk everywhere (as there was very limited fuel), would put up with candlelight (as electricity had been cut off) as long as the Allieds would not abandon them.

As winter loomed, West Berliners put their heads down and continued to work and live, with limited food and light and heat. They held out, support by the air, and it worked.

Airlift Memorial - Berlin

Over a million tons of coal, 730 000 tons of food, and 100 000 flights had been flown by Christmas, with a record-breaking 13 000 tons being dropped in a single day. Regardless of cost, the Allieds were committed to keeping up this incredible feat, which actually supplied West Berlin better than it had previously done by land and rail. Stalin realized that his plan wasn't working at all, and Russia finally gave in and took down the blockades in May of 1949. Stalin had underestimated the determination of the outside world, combined with the resilience of the Berliners. He couldn't break the spirit of the people, either economically or politically, as long as a host of western countries, German cities (Hamburg, Hannover, Wiesbaden, Frankfurt) and thousands of courageous individuals were supporting them.

Memorials now stand in honour of the dedicated pilots, and to the 43 airmen who lost their lives during the airlift. The flights had been continuous, night and day, through the harsh winter, and during all kinds of difficult and dangerous weather, for ten long months.

The city of Berlin would remain divided for another 40 years. There would come more, less successful acts of courage and determination from within Berlin, such as the uprising in June 1953 when East Berliners tried to drive out communism, receiving popular support from across the west.

In the end, the wall would come down. Germany was reunified due to this same determination, courage and perseverance for change, for good, and for freedom. Again, it took many individuals working and communicating together, taking to the streets and to the meeting rooms, to bring about positive change. We need to learn from history so that the steps which lead to division and suppression are not retread.
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