Three Cities in Four Days

Detail of the sign over The Golden Unicorn (or literally, "To the Golden Unicorn"), a restaurant in the Aachen town square.

A gargoyle on a corner of the Aachen cathedral. Colorful and narrow houses in central Aachen. A statue of Charlemagne, complete with crown and cloth mantle at the Aachen cathedral. The interior of a room in the Aachen cathedral, shot looking straight up. A very fancy reliquary in the Aachen Cathedral's Schatzkammer (Treasure Chamber).  I'm not sure what this one contains. A Hungarian picture of the Madonna in the Aachen Cathedral's Schatzkammer (Treasure Chamber).  Note the metal halos. The "Puppenbrunnen", or Doll Fountain, in Aachen, with ordinary people in comical poses.
The tower of the cathedral in Aachen, viewed from a narrow alley. The ornately decorated facade over a Gasthaus (i.e., pub) in Aachen. The statue of Charlemagne in front of the Aachen Rathaus (city hall). The nave and altars of the Aachen cathedral. A reliquary in the Aachen Cathedral's Schatzkammer (Treasure Chamber).  This one contains Charlemagne's radius and ulna. Statues over the entrance to the Aachen Cathedral's Schatzkammer (Treasure Chamber). The sign over The Golden Unicorn (or literally, "To the Golden Unicorn"), a restaurant in the Aachen town square.

With the coming of the New Year, I decided to get serious about the going to operas part of my opera project. I arrived at this conclusion after careful deliberation and scientific analysis. In other words, I realized Oh, no! I've only got six months left!

I began with what I called three Toscas in four days—seeing three productions of the same opera in three different cities within a four-day span. The idea was to compare various approaches to the same work. Or maybe it was to practice my sleeping-on-trains skills. I no longer remember which.

Experienced travelers have a special technical term that they use to describe people who try to visit three cities in four days. They call them idiots. That didn't bother me, since I've never managed to rise to that IQ level.

So on Thursday, Pat, Xandie, and I started it off together by seeing a local Karlsruhe production. Karlsruhe has an excellent opera company for the size of the town, and the production was very enjoyable, with generally good singing. The minimalist sets nicely supported the story. The director took a few liberties, but didn't do any damage. The best part was that Xandie stayed awake through nearly all of it.

Bright and early on Friday morning, I hopped a train to Vienna, and only nine hours later I was wandering the streets, trying desperately to find the theater before the show started. It turned out to be hidden behind the rather large gentleman from whom I asked directions. Fortunately, he was very tolerant of my bad German, although he did suggest that in the future I should pretend to only speak Swahili.

Vienna has one of the most famous opera houses in the world, which is reflected in their prices. They charge an arm and a leg to sit in the top balcony; the main floor will cost you your head as well. Since I don't keep anything useful in my head, I sat on the floor.

As one might expect in what may be the most tradition-bound city in the world, the Vienna auditorium is a classic example of 19th-century opulence. It is entertaining to imagine what it was like in the days of the emperors. The vision is marred only by the hordes of tourists who gawk and snap hundreds of photos before the performance starts. It's the only opera house I've ever been in where the one-timers outnumber the regulars. At least, I assume that most of the Japanese I heard wasn't being spoken by Viennese natives...

The show itself was as traditional as the city. Vienna's idea of a brand-new opera production is any set that's been repainted in the last 100 years. That means no Wunderkind deciding to reinterpret Tosca as a space alien, but also no variety. I guess the Viennese like it that way. But what they lack in innovation they make up in excess. The first-act church looks like a real cathedral; the last-act rooftop scene appeared to have been transported bodily from Rome. The singers were superb. Of course, at those prices they had better be!

After the show, I dashed to the train station and climbed on sleeper to go home. Vienna is a pretty lively place, but I didn't stay long enough to really see anything. But the train was very nice, thanks.

After a day with the family and a night in my own bed, I headed back to the train station to travel to Aachen for my final Tosca.

Aachen? you ask, Where the heck is Aachen?

You've got me. I've been there and I'm still not quite sure where it is. It's somewhere near Holland and Belgium, I think. Or maybe it's in Turkey. In any case, it's a heck of a nice town when you finally get there. (Getting there turned out to be a disaster; don't believe those myths about the German trains always running on time—unless on time means missing every connection and having to sneak into your seat when the first act is almost over.)

The opera itself was, um, goofy. As I've said, the Karlsruhe production was pretty straightforward and Vienna was extremely traditional. Aachen broke every rule in the book. I know that operas don't always make sense, but c'mon. People walking on piles of three-ring binders? Bald Italians in thick glasses and Buddhist robes? Well, I got my variety, that's for sure. And the singing was remarkably good.

In Vienna I had missed the chance to see the city. This time I demonstrated that even an idiot (that's a technical term; see above)) can learn from experience. There wasn't a reasonable way to get back that night, so I stayed in a hotel. The next day I visited the town a bit before heading home.

Perhaps you've heard of a guy called Charlemagne? It turns out that Aachen was his headquarters. He was crowned there, built a big cathedral, and turned it into the center of Europe. So they have lots of museum pieces, including (for the ghouls among us) Charlemagne's arm bone in a golden case that's shaped like—an arm. (It's a reliquary, which is a big deal in some parts of the Catholic church.)

OK, I admit I was a bit weirded out by the bone display. But all the gold stuff was sure pretty. The cathedral itself is beautiful, fully befitting one of the greatest rulers of all time. The residents have a sense of humor, too; the Puppenbrunnen fountain (yes, I know that's redundant redundant) is a delight. The area around the cathedral and city hall is magical, with many golden carvings on the walls of the buildings. I especially liked the, um, well-equipped unicorn.

I had a great time in Aachen, and I think I'd like to go back to see more of it.

...if I can ever find it again.