ALMUDLER

Vienna, 27 August 2019

My last post on a liquid refreshment (mead) has moved me to write this next post about another liquid refreshment, this time a non-alcoholic one: Almdudler. Unless readers have spent some time in Austria or the other Germanic lands – Germany and the German part of Switzerland – they will never have heard of this drink, created some 60 years ago here in Austria. I certainly hadn’t until I came to live in Vienna 20 years ago. But in this country it is very popular, second only in popularity, in the sweet carbonated drinks category to which it belongs, to Coca Cola.

For readers who don’t know the drink at all, let me throw in a photo of a bottle of Almdudler.

Readers will immediately notice the cute Austrian couple on the bottle dressed the traditional Austrian way – she in a dirndl, he in lederhosen and a jacket, both wearing an ethnic hat of some sort – but let’s leave that aside for the moment. We’ll come back to it later. Let’s concentrate on the straw-coloured liquid in the bottle, whose drinking is after all the whole point of buying the product.

I’m not particularly fond of carbonated soft drinks but if I’ve bothered to write this post it’s because this particular example of the genre is actually quite good. It is certainly a wonderful drink to have on these hot summer days as we walk the woods around Vienna. What is it about Almdudler, I’ve been asking myself these last 20 years, which makes it so pleasant to drink? The sweetness, of course, gives you a pleasant kick if you’ve been walking and sweating a lot. The fizz excites the palate. But behind the sweetness, behind the fizz, there’s a certain something, a faint, light aftertaste. What could it be?

The company which owns the recipe is predictably coy about the ingredients. The whole money-making machine that is Almdudler rests on those ingredients remaining a secret. The official website merely states that Almdudler is made of water, sugar, carbon dioxide, citric acid (as an “acidifier”, which I presume means giving the drink a slightly acidic taste but maybe to also act as a preservative), ammonia sulphite-based caramel colouring (that must be what gives the drink its straw colour), and “natural herbal extracts”. “Natural herbal extracts” … that must be the key ingredient, the one that intrigues and titillates the palate. The rest of the ingredients are just bog-standard, artificial stuff, pretty much taken off a chemical lab shelf.

So what natural herbs could Almdudler be using? I searched around on the internet for clues, particularly – given where it’s drunk – in the German section of the internet (sweating over translations with Google Translate). The search was heartening in that it showed that I was not alone in wondering what herbs are used in Almdudler, it was disheartening in that no-one had a clue. There is one faint chink of light in all the gloom. In one part of its website, the company specifies that 32 Alpine herbs are used. So let’s focus the search on Alpine herbs. The problem is, I can’t find an article on the internet which lists the Alpine herbs which are typically used in foodstuffs. Instead, what I’ve discovered is that Alpine herbs is big business. A good number of products, from throat lozenges to facial creams to digestive liqueurs, claim to use Alpine herbs – and of course are all very coy about which herbs exactly they use (I’ve also discovered that growing these herbs now occurs at agro-industrial scale in at least one Swiss canton – so much for my vision of Alpine maidens setting off in the early morning with a wickerwork basket to collect the herbs in woodland and meadow). The one exception to all this secrecy and dissimulation is the throat lozenge Ricola. The company’s web site informs us that 13 Alpine herbs are used in the lozenges, to whit: horehound, burnet, cowslip, elder, lady’s mantle, mallow, marshmallow plant, peppermint, plantain, sage, speedwell, thyme, and yarrow. I’m so pleased with the company for giving out this information that I shall give them some free publicity and throw in a photo of their product (I also happen to like the lozenges).

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That being said, this list doesn’t really help me much with the Almdudler puzzle. Do any of these 13 herbs get used, and if so which? Or are we talking about a completely different set of Alpine herbs? Any readers with inside information are welcome to drop me a line, but I fear that short of breaking into the Company’s HQ and blowing open the vault where the recipe is kept (I read somewhere that this is how Coca Cola’s recipe is hidden away from prying eyes, so I presume it will be the same for Almdudler), I will never know the answer to this question.

So let me turn to the cute Austrian couple on the label. There has always been such a couple on the bottle, although as this old poster for Almdudler attests they have been somewhat sleekened and modernized since the product first came onto the Austrian market in 1957.

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Readers will note the typically Alpine setting of the scene – all further pointers to the Alps being the source of the herbs in the drink (in fact, those strange-looking plants at the feet of the couple may be one of the herbs!). According to the company web-site, the name, too, has Alpine roots. Almdudler is a shortening of the phrase auf der Alm dudeln, which means “yodeling in the Alpine pasture”.  I rather think that’s what the couple are doing in the poster. Yodeling always makes me think of a scene in Asterix in Helvetia (where he and Obelix are sent to get a secret Alpine herb for one of Druid Panoramix’s potions – we always come back to the Alpine herbs!). At some point in their adventures, the two meet a group of Swiss having a day out in the mountains and yodeling.

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So a very Alpine drink, then! Which is funny, because the inventor of Almdudler, Erwin Klein, was as Viennese as they come. But that’s OK, because in the end he was selling post-war Austrians a dream: the little Alpine country, proud of its bucolic, rustic roots, just wanting to be left alone by everyone. And the selling of that dream made him a fortune.

Interesting fellow, Klein. Born in 1924, into a family already in the soft drinks business (his father ran a company which made carbonated lemonade), he was actually trained from an early age for the stage. An odd choice by his parents, it seems to me; but perhaps his father was a frustrated actor, and anyway there was already an older son ready to step into his father’s shoes and take over the family business. He somehow avoided being called up – he was 18 in 1942 – and survived the war (as did his father’s business). Immediately after the war, he made good on his training and became a cabaret artist for a couple of years. But for some reason he abandoned the stage in 1947 and joined the family firm. In around 1954, he started tinkering in the company’s lab on the recipe for Almdudler. At his wedding in 1957, so the story goes, he presented his wife with the first bottle of Almdudler. Through savvy marketing, he grew the brand. His biggest marketing coup was at the 1964 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck, where he took over the food and beverage supply of the entire event – allowing him, of course, to feature Almdudler prominently.  In 1973, he capped his success by stopping to make Almdudler himself. Instead, he sold other bottlers the rights to use the recipe. All he had to do was sit at home and let the royalties roll in. Great business model!

But the stage – at least the more vulgar end of it – never left him. Looking at this picture of him on the company web-site, that doesn’t surprise me too much.

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In 1959, he opened a restaurant with a permanent cabaret stage program. Among other things, this became the permanent venue of the “Drei Spitzbuben”, the three Bad Boys, a very popular act in Austria.

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According to Wikipedia, the threesome “were the ‘master of the rough joke’ and parodied all sorts of then-current hits. Many of the gross jokes are about sex, homosexuality, and alcohol.” I think we get the picture. Klein himself was involved in writing the texts of the Bad Boys. He also wrote for TV and radio – I don’t want to think what non-PC stuff he wrote. He even directed a sex film! For anyone who is interested, it was entitled Dornwittchen und Schneeröschen, and was a sex film in the guise of a fairy tale movie. It was, alas, poorly received.

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And then, in 1983, at the age of 59, he killed himself. Apparently, he was suffering from a serious illness and decided to end it all. His son took over the business and he got himself a nice grave in one of Vienna’s fancier graveyards.

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Well, I lift a glass of Almdudler to its creator. I may never know what mix of Alpine herbs he came up with in that lab 60 years ago but I will continue to enjoy the taste they impart to his product on these hot summer days. And I must try what the old poster invites us to try: mit oder ohne Wein, with or without wine. Prost!

QUAFFING MEAD

Vienna, 18 August 2019

Back in April, I was up in Vienna to make a presentation at a workshop on ecodesign and its role in promoting circular economies. Fascinating topic, but what I actually want to write about is the fact that at this meeting I met an old contact of mine, Wolfgang, who many years ago had run a training programme for me on ecodesign in Sri Lanka. After the workshop, we repaired to a bar to catch up on the past 15 years or so over a beer. Wolfgang first told me all about what he’s been up to in the ecodesign world, but then added, “What’s really exciting me at the moment is my production of mead.”

Mead … I don’t know what visions this conjures up in my readers, but for me I immediately see Vikings wassailing the dark Nordic nights away, drinking mead out of horns or possibly the skulls of their enemies, and preparing for the battle of tomorrow where they will die heroically and go to Valhalla. These fine fellows will stand in nicely for such a scene.

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I had certainly never drunk the stuff myself; I didn’t know anyone made it anymore.

Thoroughly intrigued, I pressed Wolfgang for more information. As is the case with all enthusiasts, I didn’t have to press very hard. With a pint of beer inside him, he waxed lyrical on the subject. He had to start at the very beginning, with what mead is made from – I didn’t even know that. It’s a mixture of honey and water to which yeast is added to turn the sugars in the honey into alcohol. The relative ratios of honey to water will determine the level of sweetness of the final product. Sweetness can be further increased by the addition of fruits. On the other hand, the mix can be made dryer by adding astringent berries or herbs. Wolfgang was very dismissive about the modern trend of making sweet meads. In fact, he said, he started making mead because he was appalled at how horribly sweet most modern meads are, which in his opinion obliterates the wonderful underlying tastes of the honey. He decided he was going to swim against the current and make a dry mead. He had been at it for a couple of years, and was beginning to sell his product to other enthusiasts.

Well, this all sounded very interesting! I was definitely going to have to try this stuff. Unfortunately, I was going back down to Milan the next day. But we agreed that when my wife and I came up to Vienna for the summer, I would contact him and we would arrange a mead-tasting event.

In the meantime, down in Milan, I did some research. Mead, it turns out, is very ancient, probably the first alcoholic drink that human beings ever quaffed. It’s also a pretty universal drink. The tribes that settled Europe certainly all drank mead. I’ve already mentioned the Vikings. They loved mead so much, they wrote a whole saga about it – Kvasir and the Mead of Poetry. It’s a story that has dwarves, giants, the god Odin, thievery, murder, and various other bits and bobs. A shaggy dog story if ever I heard one, good to while away those long Nordic nights while quaffing mead. The bottom line of the saga is that mead can turn you into a poet or a scholar: a feeling that I’m sure all of us have had when we have drunk too much alcohol; a feeling we normally have just before we are sick or pass out, or both. And much of Beowulf, that Anglo-Saxon poem greatly revered by lovers of the English language, takes place in a mead hall; it was in these specially-built halls that Viking chieftains and their retinue of warriors drank mead, listened to long, long – long – sagas, and generally wassailed the nights away, before collapsing onto the benches or even onto the floor in a drunken stupor. Here is an artist’s representation of a mead hall.

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And here is an excellent summary of the first part of Beowulf: “The fantastical mead hall of Heorot forms an integral part of the epic Old English poem Beowulf, serving as both the setting and instigation of the action. It is the carousing of Heorot’s denizens as they slug back mead in the hall which awakens the terrible ire of the monster Grendel – with predictably gruesome results. The solution to the problem – in typical Old English style – was not to put down the mead horns and cease partying, but to slay the monster (and his mother) before throwing an even bigger and more mead-soaked party to celebrate.”

The Vikings may be the best known quaffers of mead, but the Celts were no slouches, and nor were the Germanic tribes. There is riddle-poem in the Exeter Book, a 10th-century anthology of Anglo-Saxon poetry, about honey and mead. I quote the first couple of lines:

Ic eom weorð werum, wide funden,
brungen of bearwum ond of burghleoþum,
of denum ond of dunum. Dæges mec wægun
feþre on lifte, feredon mid liste …

But since I’m sure that 99.99% of my readers are like me not able to read Anglo-Saxon, I insert here a translation of the poem into modern English:

I am valuable to men, found widely,
brought from groves and from mountain slopes,
from valleys and from hills. By day, was I carried
by feathers up high, taken skillfully
under a sheltering roof. A man then washed me
in a container. Now I am a binder and a striker;
I bring a slave to the ground, sometimes an old churl.
Immediately he discovers, he who goes against me
and contends against my strength,
that he shall meet the ground with his back,
unless he ceases from his folly early;
deprived of his strength, loud of speech, his power bound,
he has no control over his mind, his feet, or his hands.
Ask what I am called, who thus binds slaves
to the earth with blows, by the light of day.

The Anglo-Saxons clearly recognized the power of mead to bring you crashing to the floor of the mead hall or any other establishment where you drank the stuff in excess.

The Slavs also drank the stuff – they still do, with Poland having an especially developed culture of mead drinking. We have here a painting of a couple of early 19th Century Polish noblemen enjoying a flagon of mead, a scene inspired by that great nationalist Polish poem, Pan Tadeusz by Adam Mickiewicz. I don’t even bother with the Polish here, I just launch straight into an English translation, and cut out much of the saga-like talk between the two old men who are our subject:

Two old men sat outside the house, tankards
of strong mead resting on their knees; …
The old men drink their mead and dip their snuff
from a bark case, continuing their chat.
“Yes, yes, Protazy, it is true enough,”
said the Warden. “I can agree with that,”
replied Protazy the Apparitor.
“Yes,” they repeated in unison, “Yes,”
nodding their heads. …
…. The turf bench in the yard
on which they sat adjoined the kitchen wall;
from an open window, steam filled the air,
billowing like a conflagration. When all
the smoke was gone, a white chef‟s hat was there,
flitting like a dove. It was the Seneschal,
who stuck his head out through the kitchen window,
eavesdropping on this private conversation.
Finally, he handed them a plate with two
biscuits. “Have this cake with your libation,”
He said …

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It wasn’t just tribes in Europe’s north who drank mead. The Ancient Greeks drank it – I read that Dionysios was the God of mead before becoming the God of wine. Greek followers of Dionysios, and Roman followers of Bacchus (same God, different name), used to hold festivals – the Dionysia or Bacchanalia – where much drinking and dancing and cavorting about (nudge, nudge, wink, wink, say no more) was the key. Here is a take on a Bacchanalia by Hendrik Balen (he did the figures) and Jan Breughel the Elder (he did the landscape), painted in about 1620.

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As I say, the Romans partook enthusiastically in Bacchanalia, but there were more sober Roman citizens who left us some serious commentary on mead. Here is my favourite, by the Roman naturalist Lucius Junius Moderatus Columella, who included a recipe for making mead in his tome on agriculture, De re rustica, which he wrote in about 60 CE (again, I skip the Latin and go straight into an English translation).

Take rainwater kept for several years, and mix a sextarius [ca. ½ litre] of this water with a [Roman] pound [ca. ⅓ kg] of honey. For a weaker mead, mix a sextarius of water with nine ounces [ca. ¼ kg] of honey. The whole is exposed to the sun for 40 days, and then left on a shelf near the fire. If you have no rain water, then boil spring water.

I am appalled and fascinated in equal measure by this idea that one could take several-year old rainwater and use it to make something to drink; I suppose this was a way of inoculating the honey-water mix with natural yeasts which somehow found their way into the rainwater. I presume Columella drank his own mead and survived, so it cannot have been as deadly as it sounds.

And it wasn’t just the Europeans who drank it. The Chinese did – in fact, the oldest archaeological evidence tentatively pointing to mead drinking has been found in China: some honey, rice, and fermentation residues found on the inside of a pot 9,000 years old. The Mandaya and Manobo people in the island of Mindanao in the Philippines still drink mead, which they call bais.

In Africa, the Xhosa in South Africa have an ancient tradition of drinking mead, or iQhilika in Xhosa, and the Ethiopians have been, and continue to be, enthusiastic drinkers of mead (or tej as it’s called locally). Here we have Ethiopians enjoying a wee dram of the stuff.

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And I love this picture, done in the traditional Ethiopian style, of what appears to be a priest and his acolytes getting ready to down some tej.

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What I find particularly delicious in this painting is that normally the figures in Ethiopian paintings are very solemn; no-one breaks into a smile. Yet here, at the thought of the pleasures to come, we see a hint of a smile on the acolytes’ faces (while the priest looks troubled, which is perhaps how it should be: “Guys, should we be doing this? What if someone sees me drinking this stuff? I have an important position in the community.”).

Even in the Americas mead was, and still is consumed. Prior to the Spanish conquest, the Maya made a drink called balché made by soaking the bark of a special tree in a honey-water mix and allowing it to ferment. Apparently, the Maya consumed balché in enema form to maximize its inebriating effect (just think if the Vikings had cottoned on to that …). For some reason, the Conquistadores banned the drink, but it never went away completely. Here is an Amerindian from the Chiapas region of Mexico making balché the old way: in a hollowed log, place the bark of the tree, add water and honey, cover and wait.
Balché may be making a comeback, although one of the reasons the Spaniards didn’t like it is that it smelled foul to them. They popularized a variant, xtabentún, which replaced the tree bark with anise (they also added rum, which makes the drink more of a liqueur).

In a way, it’s not surprising that mead is drunk in so many parts of the world. Honey, its basic ingredient, is to be found pretty much everywhere on this planet, as this map of the global distribution of the honeybee attests (the different colours refer to sub-species of the honeybee; the pinkish colour, the most dominant, gives the range for apis mellifera).

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For reasons that are not completely clear to me, the drinking of mead went into steep decline in Europe some time after the Middle Ages. Somehow, it got squeezed out by wine on one side and beer on the other. So now there are a few traditional hold-outs where mead never completely died out and enthusiasts like Wolfgang who are trying to bring mead back.

Coming back to Wolfgang, when June came around and my wife and I came up to Vienna for the summer, I contacted him. But one thing and another – he was away, then I was away; he was busy, then I was busy – meant that we weren’t able to arrange the mead tasting until last week. But it was finally arranged! Wolfgang keeps his mead in an old wine cellar in a small village outside Vienna, so we took a bus with him one evening and sallied forth. It was a lovely cellar, very deep, at the end of which he had a table with chairs where we sat down to do our mead tasting.
He got us some glasses and a bottle of his best mead.
He uncorked it, poured us a generous portion, and invited us to taste. We ceremonially picked up the glass, sniffed it, swirled it around, and took a sip.

It was … interesting. I think that’s the best I can say. I don’t know if readers can imagine this, but it tasted like honey without the sweet taste. What gets left behind if you take out the honey’s sweetness is a slightly acrid, slightly “waxy” taste. If any of my readers have ever nibbled at wax, that was the predominant taste of the mead.

The first mead we tried was made with honey where the bees had been feeding on the nectar from lime-tree (linden) flowers (I have waxed lyrical about the flower of the linden tree in a past post). We then tried a mead made with honey where the bees had feasted on rhododendron nectar up in the Alps. It was much clearer in colour, but the taste did not change much. As a finale, we tried a mead to which chokeberries had been added. These turned the mead’s colour redder and made the taste smokier – but it did not change the basic facts.
Well, we bought two bottles from Wolfgang. We felt we owed him that for the trouble he had gone to. We plan to take the bottles down to Milan, where we’ll try them on our son and see what he thinks.

In the meantime – but I have to hide this from Wolfgang – I think we should find some sweet mead to try. I feel that despite Wolfgang’s tut-tutting, people are not so wrong to drink their mead sweet. And that Ethiopian mead looks really interesting! I wonder if the Ethiopian restaurant we go to in Milan has any?

HOLIDAY SNAPS OF MUNICH AND BREGENZ

Vienna, 8 August 2019

I left readers at the end of my last post promising to cover the rest of our stay in Munich as well as our stay in Bregenz in another post. Well, I am a man of his word, here is that post!

In truth, the post will be more of a showing of photos than anything else, the e-equivalent of having your friends round for dinner after your latest holiday and boring them with your holiday snaps. I hope my readers will not be too bored and slip away early from this post …

With that, let us begin!

Munich

Well, I can’t say that I was carried away by the overall look and feel of the city. Pleasant enough, but Vienna for instance is a much more striking city overall. So what follows is a string of individual things that stuck in my mind as we criss-crossed the city.

The Nymphenburg Palace, the little summer pad of the Dukes-Kings-Electors of Bavaria.

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It was once out in the countryside but is now in the suburbs of Munich. Considerably more dramatic than the Hapsburgs’ little summer pad at Schönbrunn (now also marooned in Vienna’s suburbs).

The outside may have been dramatic, but the palace’s interiors weren’t up to much. On the other hand, the interior of Amalienburg, a little hunting lodge hidden among the trees of the Palace’s park, was quite something.

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“One of the finest examples of Rococo architecture in Germany” intones the Michelin Green Guide. I’m quite ready to believe it.

A riot of colour at the city’s botanical gardens, situated on the edge of Nymphenburg Palace’s park.

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A striking painting by Alexej Jawlensky (Portrait of the Dancer Sacharoff), at Villa Lenbach, one of the museums we visited.

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The museum has a whole section devoted to members of the Blaue Reiter group. A worthy collection indeed, but nothing other than this painting grabbed me.

Villa Lenbach also had a room devoted to paintings from after 1945, which is where I saw this one.

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The Seated Man, by Jean Hélion, a French painter whom I had never, ever heard of prior to entering the Villa Lenbach. Well, you learn something new every day …

We also visited the Modern Art Gallery (Pinakothek der Moderne). Again, a very worthy collection, but only this painting by Max Beckmann (Dance in Baden-Baden) has stayed with me.

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On our wanderings, we entered the Burgersaal church by mistake (I misread the map and thought we were visiting St. Michael’s church (“the first Renaissance church built north of the Alps” the Michelin Green Guide dixit – the serendipity of tourism).

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The paintings on the ceiling were a pleasingly modernized take on an old art form.

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The church is dedicated to Blessed Rupert Mayer (kneeling to the left on that ceiling painting), a priest who stood up to the Nazis. He was one of the very few German Catholics who did so …

The new main Jewish synagogue in St. Jakobs Platz in the old town.

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The previous main synagogue was pulled down by the Nazis in 1938. We didn’t get to visit inside, but the brooding, rugged exterior was impressive enough. It reminded me of the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. The Jewish Museum next door was interesting, too, but more as a collection of memories of a community scythed down by the Nazis. Many were sent to Dachau, a mere 20 km to the north of Munich.

The Hofbräuhaus Beer Hall in the old town.

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This was one of several such halls in Munich in which Hitler used to speak in the early days of his political career. I don’t know what I was expecting; a sense of menace or of dread in the air? No doubt I was influenced by a painting I had seen in Los Angeles’s County Museum of Art: The Orator, by Magnus Zeller.

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The location of that painting could easily have been the Hofbräuhaus.

But all I saw were a lot of people enjoying a beer, and all I heard was a lot of cheerful babble.

And that’s it for Munich! Next stop:

Bregenz

I must confess that I was expecting more. Its location on Lake Constance, its venerable and ancient past (it was originally a Roman town by the name of Brigantium), all led me to think it would be an interesting place to visit. But no, there really wasn’t much to it, and what there was, was ruined by bad town planning: the railway station and a busy through road effectively cut the city off from the lake. So again, just a few photos of some individual places.

A view of the upper town, a charming and quiet little corner of the city.

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That tower in the background with the squat onion dome is St. Martin’s Tower; this charming fresco is one of several which adorn its interior.

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A view of the city and the lake from up a mountain outside the city. We discovered some beautiful walks in the mountains surrounding the city.

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The spectacular set for the opera; it was the fact that our friend from Bregenz had extra tickets that brought us to the city in the first place.

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The stage is a little way out in the lake, just off the shore, and the audience takes its place on seating put up along the shore. We were seeing Verdi’s Rigoletto, but the opera itself was completely overshadowed by the set. That giant head went up and down and turned this way and that, the eyes opened and closed, as did the mouth, people entered and exited the mouth, the hands moved, fluttering here and there, the tethered balloon went up and down … All this while the sun was setting over the lake and darkness came creeping up on us. It was jaw-dropping. Was the singing good? I don’t know, I was so concentrated on that head and its next move.

And that’s it for Bregenz!

I hope you’re still with me and that you enjoyed our holiday snaps. See you next time!

EL ANATSUI, GHANAIAN-NIGERIAN ARTIST

Vienna, 2 August 2019
amended 5 August 2019

A couple of months ago, a friend of ours told us that he had two spare tickets for the Bregenz Opera festival and asked us if would we like to take them. It so happens that I had been meaning to go and check Bregenz out ever since, many years ago, we had driven through it one wintry day on our way to visit my parents. So my wife and I gladly took him up in his offer. A write-up on that trip, though, will have to wait for another day. What I want to write about today is our little pre-trip to Munich.

It just so happens that a couple of days after we accepted our friend’s offer to go to Bregenz we read about an exhibition in Munich of the works of the Ghanaian-Nigerian artist El Anatsui.

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We had come across his work in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art some five years ago, and had been hankering to see more of his stuff ever since. It also so happens that we had passed through Munich as well as Bregenz that wintry day of many years ago – as readers will ascertain looking at a map, Munich and Bregenz are in the same general direction from Vienna. There too, I had promised myself to return some day to visit the city.

So after a little discussion and a study of bus and train timetables, my wife and I decided that we would visit Munich for a few days before going on to Bregenz for another couple of days. Thus it was that two weeks ago we disembarked from the bus at Munich’s bus station to start our visit.

Since it was the primary reason for our visiting Munich, I will focus in this post on the exhibition of El Anatui’s work. I’ll deal with the rest of Munich and Bregenz in a later post.

Anatsui is best known for these kinds of works.
At first glance, they appear to be large sheets of textiles of some sort, draped on the wall. But actually, the sheets are made up of thousands of aluminum bottle tops, from bottled drinks, as well as of the aluminum bands or sheaths to which the unopened tops are attached.
Anatsui was driven to experiment with these waste objects by a principle he lives by: artists should use what they have around them to create their art. He buys these discarded pieces of aluminum from the informal recyclers who collect them. His large crew of assistants then flatten them, after which Anatsui has them lay the pieces on the ground, where he shuffles them around, using the brand colours of the aluminum pieces to produce an overall large-scale abstract design. Once he is satisfied with the design, his assistants “sew” the pieces together with copper wire. When Anatsui is setting up an exhibition, he will spend much time in “draping” the sheets on the wall until he is satisfied with the effect. Here are some other pieces in the exhibition.
Sometimes, Anatsui uses the aluminum pieces differently. He will have his assistants twist them into circles, which they will then sew together.
This gives him semi-transparent sheets with a gauze-like effect. He had one very large work of this type in the exhibition, filling up a whole room.
While Anatsui has mostly used aluminum bottle tops and their sheaths in these kinds of works, he has also used other metallic discards. This work, for instance, is made with the “Easy Open” can tops, the ones you can just pull off the cans.
Personally, I find his work with the aluminum caps and sheathes more interesting. Can tops are too big, so the textile-like effect of his other works is not really there. The brand colours are absent too, so he can’t get the abstract designs he creates with the bottle tops.

I have to say, I find these pieces fascinating. Not only are they beautiful to look at, they are also a wonderful example of how, with some thought and dedication, a waste can be given a new life. And what a new life they have been given by Anatsui! His works remind me of another African artist whom I have written a post about earlier, Abdoulaye Konaté. He also takes small coloured pieces of material, in his case pieces of textile, and creates beautiful abstract designs out of them.

Although Anatsui is best known for his work with aluminum bottle caps, he actually arrived at this quite late in his career. Before that, he worked, and continues to work, with wood. His basic approach is to first take a chain-saw to the wood, gouging out lines, often criss-crossing and of varying depths and orientation, and then taking a blow torch to the surface to selectively blacken it. He may then add touches of colour. The effect can be quite striking. Here are photos of a couple of his works in the exhibition.
Before that, he worked in clay. We are now at the start of his career, and as is perhaps often the case with artists this early work is good but not great. I include only one of these works here.

As I say, a really great artist. I’ve said it before, and I say it again: I think the best art today is coming out of the developing countries; In Europe especially, our art is dying on its feet. I’m afraid any readers who are interested in seeing this exhibition will no longer be able to see it in Munich. It closed at the end of July. But I think there is a chance it will go on to other places. Keep a lookout for it!