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"Opera Tour of Central Europe, a Memoir" (2017), by Herschel Browne

The Hersch

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Spring and the Universe

Phew...it took me a mere 3 hours or so finally to get to this point, but I'm happy because I'm not afraid to die (possibly or about that in a day or 2).

Some bits of music for what was a stunningly beautiful spring evening, and I hope the beginning of a lovely and prosperous new solar cycle. I doesn't matter that my home health aid, whom unfortunately I pay a pittance for, was called up by her questionable boyfriend who told her had just totalled her car! It gave me a chance to feel the spring in Georgetown, and see the happiness around me, join in with it and augment it, as called for, with a little money, which for the present I have in generous supply. I don't need all of it, and some other people do. No,  no Scientology, really more like a strictly secular Christianity, with nothing much of the dogma besides the teaching and example of Christ. Or Buddha, Sidhartha to his buddies.

Some bits of music:

  • Good Golly Miss Molly
  • I hear Music
  • Cool Breeze (c berry)
  • Deux heures  ä tuer (look hard on Youtube if needed)
  • Das Lied von der Erde, 1st movement
  • For mysterious transmission of music and other bits of stuff "Telstar"
  • Jerusalem (Blake, Parry)
  • Dylan .Duquesne Whistle. Absolutely Sweet Marie" . Romance in Durango .
  • Papillons (Schumann)
  • Overture to Bernstein's opera Candide on his 100th year)
  • Disco Round (I love the nightlife)
  • Harper Valley PTA
  • Ode to Billie Joe Mcalisster (June 3, pass the biscuits please)
  • Chimes of Freedom (Dylan cover)
  • Take the A-Train
  • Drivin on freeway, Aretha
  • Johnnie Otis Harlem Nocturne
  • Across the Universe (spoiled by the oft grandness of Phil Spector, whose alibi for the charge of killing his girlfriend was that he had gone back into the restaurant to fetch his revolver)
  • Enjoy spring, every day of it.

Hersch, the


Opera Tour
a memoir of my central-European tour of 2017


Flying into Franz Josef Strauss airport outside Munich always seems rather bleak.  The flight from Dulles gets in just as dawn is breaking, and it's usually cloudy, cold, and dark, at least in December. I flew out of Dulles on December 25th, and arrived in the early morning of December 26th, a holiday in Germany, with little sunshine and a long walk with a lot of luggage through passport control and customs, and finally out to where the Lufthansa shuttle bus to the Munich main railway station was waiting for passengers. I was the only traveler on the bus, and as it stood waiting for ten or fifteen minutes after I climbed aboard, I was afraid that it wouldn't get under way until it was more fully loaded, but we actually did get going in short order with me in splendid, isolated possession of the entire bus.

I  had been contemplating a Central-European opera tour for several years. To be sure,  great opera houses and great opera traditions flourish elsewhere: In London and New York, Paris and Milan, among many other places. But it has always seemed to me that the heart of the European opera tradition beats most strongly in the remnants of the Austro-Hungarian Empire: In Vienna and Prague in particular, but also in Budapest, and Salzburg, and Bratislava, and even on the outskirts of the Empire, such as Munich, which was left on the other side of the line when the Hohenzollern Empire was foisted on an incautious Europe in 1871, although Munich was much more obviously in the orbit of Vienna than of Berlin.

So when my sister and I were discussing a possible late-December, early-January visit to Berchtesgaden, it seemed that the time had come. Christmas and New Year in Berchtesgaden were something of a family tradition, and my mother and sister went every year for something like twenty years; other family members would join them from time to time. I would generally go every two or three years, but only after the gruesomeness of Christmas with all its ghastly trappings was safely over. The family tradition came more or less to an end after 2007-2008, when my mother, then in her late 80s, realized that she had grown too frail to travel much. My sister, on the other hand, continued to go by herself every year; I believe this winter, when I also went, was the first time since 2008 that any of the family joined her.

Berchtesgaden is a pretty little town set in a landscape of majestic grandeur. It really is among the most beautiful places I've ever been, and if you can ignore all the Nazi associations (Berchtesgaden was the top Nazis' favorite place of resort), or, if you are of another bent, embrace them, you'll find few places pleasanter for a winter holiday. It's also very nice in the spring, when the hillsides and mountains burst into vibrant life with wild-flowers and the spring torrents.

After the War, the U.S. Army took over parts of the area for an R&R facility. They appropriated what was probably the grandest hotel, called the Berchtesgadener Hof (where Hitler's buddies the Duke and Duchess of Windsor used to stay before the regrettable hostilities began). Although my father was Navy, we stayed there a couple of times when we lived in Munich when I was a little boy. Now torn down, alas. After the Cold War ended, the U.S. Army abandoned Berchtesgaden, which really blighted the local economy, even though one hardly ever saw any U.S. Army people in the town. It seems finally to have recovered, at least in part because some outsiders (albeit Germans) with lots of money put up a large luxury hotel (called the Edelweiss) in the heart of the town a few years ago, and took over several adjacent properties. I'm not sure it's an unalloyed benefit to the town economy or to its life more generally, but I'm not close enough to know.


The Munich airport is about as far out of town as Dulles is to Washington, so it takes quite a while to reach the main railway station in the city (fun fact: the German equivalent of "it's all Greek to me" is "Ich verstehe nur Bahnhof", that is, "I understand only 'railway station'"). I've arrived at the main station in Munich many times over many years, and what I always do when I get there is quickly obtain a bratwurst and a glass of beer, no matter the time of day. On this visit, I discovered to my dismay that none of the Imbiss (snack) places served draft beer in glasses any more; you could have a can of beer or no beer. I didn't go all the way to Munich to drink beer out of a can, so I didn't have a bratwurst either. I had always thought that managing the glasses used by a dozen or more beer dispensaries must have been an enormous logistical challenge, since you could get a glass at one place and leave it anywhere in the station, so this development was unsurprising, but unwelcome in the extreme.

I eventually staggered with my luggage across Bayerstraße to the hotel where I had a reservation, the Europäischer Hof, and even though check-in time was probably 3 pm, and it was only about 9:30 am, they had a room ready for me and I was able to occupy it, take off my clothes, have a glass of whisky, and get into bed and sleep for four or five hours. I know many people think that's the wrong thing to do, but it's my invariable practice when arriving in Europe after an overnight flight, even in business class, as I flew this time, and it has served me well.  After I sleep, I take a shower, get dressed, and go out and find some supper. On this occasion I stepped practically next door to the Münchner Stubn, where I had a wonderful plate of Schweinebraten with a lot of crackling, potato dumplings, and Speckkrautsalat, a sort of vinergary coleslaw with bacon. If you're at a loss for what to order at a restaurant in Bavaria (where you'd better not have an aversion to pork), you usually won't go wrong with Schweinebraten, sometimes confusingly called Schweinsbraten, which is generally a pot-roast of pork with a savory gravy, and if it's got the word "Krusten" in the name, as it did at the Münchner Stubn, it will have crusty, crackling skin with it.

If you've been to Munich and remember Bayerstraße, the Münchner Stubn is where the Wienerwald used to be. I actually thought that the Wienerwald ( a chain specializing in Viennese fried chicken) had ceased to be, but it merely contracted greatly, stopped serving Viennese fried chicken, and continues to soldier on in Vienna and other eastern parts, such as Prague and Budapest, as I discovered when I reached those cities. They used to have outlets all over Germany, but no longer. (I've since discovered via the Google that they still, or perhaps again, have many restaurants in Munich and Berlin, but not the one on Bayerstaße, in Munich, nor the one in Berchtesgaden, which was on Maximilianstraße (which during the Third Reich was called Adolf-Hitler-Straße).) I'll have more to say about this below, but Wiener Backhendl, the fried chicken that was the traditional aristocratic dish of Viennese cuisine, seems to have vanished from the earth. I never did eat at any of the Wienerwald restaurants I encountered on this trip, and I probably didn't miss much. But I also never found any echtes Wiener Backhendl, which was a shame.

After a fairly elaborate Bavarian breakfast at my hotel the next morning, I wrestled my luggage across the street back to the railway station and set off in a train towards Berchtesgaden. There used to be some trains that went direct from Munich (even from Hamburg) to Berchtesgaden, and long ago there used to be trains with a Berchtesgaden "Kurswagen," which was a car or cars that went to Berchtesgaden while the rest of the train went elsewhere, probably to Salzburg. Now, however, you always have to change trains in Freilassing, which for those of us of a certain age and a surfeit of heavy luggage can be problematic, as you have no way of changing trains there without climbing down one stairway from your arrival platform and then up another one to where the Berchtesgaden train is waiting,  and you've got only about six minutes to do it. Happily, as often happened on this trip, a gentleman younger than myself, although not himself particularly young, kindly offered to help carry my luggage up the stairs to the waiting train; I couldn't possibly have made the connection otherwise.

Then in Berchtesgaden, once again to get from your arrival platform into the station, you have to go down one stairway and up another. They have a conveyor belt sort of thing for suitcases on the downward stairs (but oddly not the upward), and I managed to put my heavy case on it, and then watched it tumble end over end to the bottom while I lost my footing and fell down myself, luckily not down the stairs. A woman appeared above me asking if she could give me a hand up, and as I said yes and thanked her, she asked "Are you Herschel?" She turned out to be Rita, the daughter of the guest-house where I and my sister were staying, and where we've stayed many times over the years. I wouldn't have recognized her; she was a girl of nineteen or so the last time I'd seen her, and now she was a woman of nearly thirty, and, like her mother, very sturdily built and strong as a lioness. After she helped me up, we got downstairs and she picked up both my bags and then ran up the other stairway with them as if they weighed next to nothing, to the station platform where my sister was waiting. Rita drove us and a couple of just-arrived young skiers from the station to Haus Jermann.

If you are going to stay in Berchtesgaden, I can't think of any reason to stay anywhere but Haus Jermann. A few hotels are much fancier, but none will give you a warmer welcome, or a room with better views. Every room has a balcony with views over the town and of the surrounding high mountains, and a private shower and toilet, which used to be rather unusual at Alpine guest-houses. Haus Jermann also now has an elevator that takes you from street level, well below the house, to the top level, which is a tremendous boon to those of us no longer young, who used to have a serious climb to the house door, and then a number of interior stairways to navigate.  On this trip, I had a double room (on the top level just across from the elevator), which is all that was available by the time I booked, with a wrap-around balcony with ravishing views on two sides, for 40 euros a night. A single room would have been 30. To my surprise, Frau Jermann knocked 10 euros a night off my rate for the two days I didn't partake of her generous breakfast. I have no way of knowing what perks my family gets for being very long-time, valued customers (since the late 1980s), but they will certainly treat you well and fairly. They will even pick you up and deliver you back not only to the railway station but to the airport in Salzburg, at no extra charge at any hour without complaint. All this and comfortable beds too.

I'm not going to go on at length about my stay in Berchtesgaden, as it was merely prelude to my opera tour. Let it suffice to say that there aren't as many good places to eat as there used to be, but there are a few: Bier-Adam is probably the best place in the town now, replacing the restaurant at Hotel Vier Jahreszeiten which has suffered a sad decline. They serve local lake trout at most of the Bavarian restaurants in the town, with Bier-Adam probably having the best. The waiter used to fillet the fish table-side, but that tradition ended long ago, probably because they couldn't find any waiters with the skill. If you want Weißwurst with a Brezn (pretzel, a nice soft one), the restaurant Goldener Bär, right in the center of town, is your best bet. You can visit Schönau on Königsee and get a very good meal at a place called Echostüberl, named for the famous Königsee echo. You can take a cruise boat from Schönau down the length of the remarkably beautiful lake Königsee; the boat will stop at a strategic location where a fellow will play a tune on a trumpet, with the cliff that runs down into the lake echoing every note very clearly. This fellow will also keep up a running commentary in a heavy Bavarian accent which even if you understand a lot of German will be incomprehensible, although the Germans on the boat will find it amusing. The boat will put in at the beautiful little church of St. Bartholomä, not reachable overland, where there's a pretty good little restaurant, where I had Seesaibling, which is lake salmon-trout or char.

(Linguistic note: Der See (masculine) means the lake. Die See (feminine) means the sea. In either case, See is pronounced, approximately, zay. Further note: German has three main words meaning what we would call in English the sea or the ocean: Der Ozean, masculine; das Meer, neuter; die See, feminine. Kind of odd, no?)

From Schönau you can also take the Jennerbahn, a gondola-lift that will take you to the top of Jenner, one of the highest mountains in the area, where there are stunning views and a mediocre restaurant. Or you can go to the town of Bad Reichenhall, where there's a similar lift that takes you to the top of the Predigtstuhl, with, again, astonishing views but in this case a rather good restaurant where my sister and I had a very nice lunch this trip. I'd never been up the Predigtstuhlbahn before.

You can also go to Salzburg, a fairly short and very cheap bus ride from the Berchtesgaden railway station, where you can take the funicular up to the Salzburg castle, which again has stunning views in every direction. For an extra fee you can tour the castle, which frankly isn't very interesting. There's a restaurant up there that doesn't look very good, so my sister and I went back down to the town and had lunch in a place where we'd eaten before called Peterskeller, which makes the (to me) ridiculous claim of having served Charlemagne some time around AD 800. I am always skeptical of that kind of claim of antiquity, but we had a very good lunch of Tafelspitz there, the famous Austrian dish of boiled beef, which was supposedly the Emperor Franz Josef I's favorite nibble.


After about six days of enjoying what Berchtesgaden and its surroundings have to offer,  and with the New Year having been rung in, I took the train back to Munich to begin my opera tour. Rita kindly drove me to the station and carried my luggage aboard. Back in Munich I once again stayed at the Europäischer Hof, and once again had dinner next door at the Münchner Stubn, the main difference being that my first dinner there (Schweinebraten) had been very good, while my second dinner was utterly without merit. I ordered a bowl of Leberknödelsuppe (liver dumpling soup) and a plate of what was listed on the menu as Magentratzerl, which I don't know how to translate (except to say that "Magen" means stomach), which was some spreadable cheeses, some radishes, and a small pretzel. Both the liver dumpling and the broth it came in tasted of little but salt, and while the spreadable cheeses were pleasant enough, the little pretzel which was all there was to spread them on was hard, dry, and awful. I wasn't very hungry anyway.

The following day was to bring the first opera of my tour, the perennial favorite Il barbiere di Siviglia by Gioachino Rossini, which premiered in Rome in 1816. I started off early from my hotel in order to get an early dinner before the performance, stopping in at the long-standing Munich institution Augustiner Restaurant, a cavernous many-roomed establishment on Neuhauser Straße in the old-city pedestrian zone, famous for excellent Bavarian fare and for their Augustiner beer, still probably the best of the Munich lagers (which isn't really saying much). I figured since it was early for dinner I wouldn't have trouble getting a table, but the place was pretty full. I do think they still could have found a better spot for me than next to the entrance to the toilets, especially given how well-turned-out I was, but I guess single diners, particularly foreign ones, don't get much respect.

I'm sure I could have had a good meal had I ordered differently. I've had excellent dinners there before. As it was, I ordered Münchner Tellerfleisch, which is similar to Tafelspitz but uses a lesser cut of beef and is served in a soup plate with a little bit of broth, some root vegetables, and some freshly grated horseradish. This lesser cut of beef was essentially a cut of gristle, and had obviously been used to make somebody else's soup, the broth in my dish bearing an uncanny resemblance to dishwater. It came with a huge bowl of potato salad, of the variety you find in Bavaria and Austria, which is quite unlike what Americans think of as German potato salad. The southern variety is made of very soft-cooked bits of potato mixed with minced onion, meat broth, and vinegar, and is sort of a sour cold potato soup, which I don't like very much.

If only the horror of the evening had ended there! Alas, there was much worse to follow. I believe I can count on the fingers of one hand, over the course of my life, the performances I have abandoned at the first intermission, whether operatic or otherwise. This occasion started auspiciously, at the wonderful venue the Cuvilliés Theater, one of the most beautiful theatres I have ever seen. It's a sort of Rococo fantasy, all gilding and curlicues and velvet drapery rising in seemingly countless tiers to a remarkably remote ceiling. It's a rebuilding of the old Residenz Theater, in the central residential palace of the Wittelsbach dukes and kings of Bavaria, which was destroyed in the bombing of the Second World War, but the interior decoration of the old Residenz Theater had supposedly been removed and stored somewhere for safekeeping, although where that might have been I've never been informed.

Some things take a remarkable effort to screw up. It is not for nothing that Il Barbiere di Siviglia has remained a staple of the operatic repertoire while most (thought certainly not all) operas of the bel-canto era faded into obscurity, to be revived only in the latter half of the the twentieth century. It's a guaranteed crowd-pleaser. I was a little concerned when I entered the theatre and found that it had no orchestra pit, and that the small instrumental ensemble that was to provide the accompaniment was sharing the stage with the singers and the set. As it happened, the rather odd ensemble, consisting of string quartet plus base viol, accordion, French horn, and xylophone made a very nice sound that did no violence to the score.

And then, not long after the famous overture, Figaro makes his appearance. The aria he sings to introduce himself to the audience (Largo al factotum della città) is familiar even to people who have no other knowledge of opera ("Figaro Figaro...bravo bravissimo") and is absolutely guaranteed to please the audience if executed with even a bare modicum of skill. This production chose simply to leave it out, substituting a monologue spoken in German. There was actually a lot of German spoken dialogue, which I don't recall hearing in this opera before, and the score was sung alternately in Italian and German, seemingly at random.

The seat I sat in was so disastrously uncomfortable, that between my dislike of what they were doing to Rossini's opera and my butt's complaint about the furniture, my butt and I decided to head for the door as soon as the lights came up for the intermission. It was among my most miserable experiences in more than forty years of opera-going. I think I stopped somewhere for a stiff drink on the way back to my hotel. Maybe I waited till I got back to my hotel for the stiff drink. I really can't remember, as my state of stunned stupefaction had me rather debilitated, isolated possession of the entire bus.

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Dear friends:

Don kindly posted my "opera tour" essay. I'd like it to be noted that this is but a fragment of my planned longer piece: this is 1/3 at most. I have yet to discuss the heart of my tour, Prague to Bratislava to Budapest. Prague was my longest stay, and will contain thoughts on 4 operas, 2 opera houses, the city and bridges of Prague, and especially the cafés, restaurants, food, and beer of Prague, which is probably the great Beer City in the world (I detest the phrase "on the planet' used this way; please don't use it).

Alas, but also hooray, other life events intervened, and new, more immediately exciting writing projects appeared in my cultural universe. Look in future for essays on Chaplin and the shape of modernity, for spectacular disasters in North America and western Europe (more of a list than an essay, with pictures), and possibly a longish piece presented as a poem of reflections on my current condition and the human condition generally, in the form of a meditation on his current position and future prospects by Aeneas as he leaves self-immolated Dido and the ruins of Carthage behind and sails into the unknown territories of Italy.

I hope everyone is enjoying the day.


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