A visit to the Fuggerei in Augsburg - the world's oldest social housing complex still in use - is an unforgettable experience. Afterwards you walk away with a head full of quiz night facts:
The walled housing complex of the Fuggerei is this place. It is situated within the city of Augsburg, Bavaria, and was founded in 1516 by Jakob Fugger the Younger - a member of the rich Fugger merchant and banking dynasty whose former power was so great they replaced the Medicis as Europe's leading bankers. A map in the museum shows the trade routes of the Fugger enterprise. The Bahamas and Mogadishu figure. Jakob Fugger who had no children died one of the richest men ever to have lived. A Bill Gates of his age.
We arrived in Augsburg on 8th August, an auspicious day when the city was celebrating the Augsburger Hohes Friedenfest - a festival dating from 1650 and marking ecumenical reconciliation between Protestants and Catholics. The sun shone on the central plaza of the city and inhabitants and visitors were celebrating the day in the customary way of bringing and sharing food with friends and strangers. On a podium stood religious leaders of the Catholic, Islamic, Protestant, and Jewish faiths.
At the end of WWII the small community of Jews had completely vanished because of deportations, and it took four decades before the community regained its number. The synagogue, which was originally dedicated in 1917 and burned and looted during Kristallnacht in 1938, was restored and reopened in 1985 and began holding regular services. The genteel summer occasion of the festival seemed like a veneer to such terrible history, and the religious leaders might well have mentioned the atrocities against the minority Jews, but did not.
I walked around and listened to the message being delivered by a protestant leader: God loves all. God sees all. God is all. The message was upbeat and the words wafted across the plaza with its low hum of conviviality.
From there we headed off to the Fuggerei, about ten minutes away. The slide show above tells the rest ...
Valldemossa is a small village in the Sierra de Tramuntana mountain range in north Mallorca. It is over 400 meters above sea level and has a small population of around two thousand.
The approach to the village is a road that rises above the plane of La Palma, and takes you through the renowned forests of the north, replete with oaks, olives, and cypress trees. As we ascended the mountain road I could see the urban spread of the capital expanding in the rearview mirror, soon to be blocked from view when the forest thickened and the road veered off in a new direction. For a short time the drama of the scenery and the feeling of travelling into another Mallorca imposed upon me, and I was full of curiosity about Valldemossa, made famous by George Sands's description of living here in the winter of 1838-39 with her lover Frédéric Chopin.
Arriving early in the evening brought immediate advantage and the empty coach bays and abundance of parking places indicated most tourists had left. Waitresses and waiters were clearing up, shops were shuttered for the commercial hiatus, and here and there locals sat around, leaning back on chairs under a café awning, or in the dappled shade of an acacia tree, all interweaving their rhythmic Mallorquin native tongue in flowing conversations.
We headed straight for the private museum where Sands and Chopin lived, a former Carthusian monastery whose sparse and solemn cells were rented out as long ago as the mid-nineteenth century.
A cashier provided a brief overview of what to look out for. Is the piano Chopin's original piano? I asked. 'Si. Si, she replied, 'Siempre ha estado en Mallorca.' The piano is the original. It has always been on Mallorca.
The museum was a delight. A soft summer breeze brushed along the vaulted corridors, and when we came across Chopin and Sand's room I was delighted to see his Pleyel piano, placed near the window. Chopin had the piano brought from Paris, and on it he would compose for Sands in the evenings. I looked out of the window on an ornamental terraced garden. Beyond the garden wall the evening sun made the cypress trees on the mountain sides shimmer bluish, and on behind the valley the sea glimmered silver-grey. It is an exquisite place, and I imagined Chopin sat her all those years ago. The picture above is taken from the very window.
Chopin had about ten more years of life left when he came to Mallorca from Paris. He had hoped that the milder clime would ease his ailing health. It did not, and in the next decade his health only got worse. Was it TB? Most likely say many experts. His body was interred in Paris, but his heart was sent to Poland at Chopin's request where it rests in the Holy Cross Church in Warsaw. Its journey there, smuggled by his loving sister past Russian guards, Poland then being under occupation, is the beginning of Chopin's transformation into virtual national saint and icon of Polish nationalism. All through the visit I could hear Chopin's music in my mind's ear. The nocturnes - whose soft melodies float across the brooding, elemental power beneath. The 'cannon buried in the flowers' as the contemporary Schumann said of Chopin.
We left the museum an hour later and wound our way down the narrow thoroughfares of the ancient village. Local kids played in one street, and in another a procession of musicians went by with the sound of bagpipes and drums filling the air, all following a bride and groom who made their way under a shower of confetti, scattered by the host that surrounded them.
Here is the house of Santa Catalina Thomas read a notice outside one modest abode, a tiny terraced house in the middle of the street. She was born on May 1531, and canonized in the twentieth century. Decorated tiles done in the azulejos style adorn doorways all over the village in honour of the famous peasant girl who left Valldemossa to live as a nun in the capital, Palma de Mallorca.
The rustic stone buildings and cobbled streets suddenly became a corridor of time, and Valldemossa was transformed, its modernity gone and the layers of history whispering. Here was the house of a local peasant girl who had lived in medieval austerity, far from my own world. I walked to the end of the street, vaguely wondering where the connection was between its late medieval residents and the village of the twenty first century.
At the end of the street an old man was pointing at a broken sandstone paver on a doorstep. Who was the young man he was talking to? Was it his son? His comments had the familiarity of family. 'I don't want to go and buy another one,' the old man said. 'Make sure you cut the new one right. And don't break any others when you lift the old one.'
I slowed down, delighted I had come across local Valldemossa. Two generations. A block of stone. A simple repair.