September 11, 2008
REGENSBURG—The mighty Danube begins in the park of the Furstenberg Palace and flows eastward for a distance of 2,000 miles across ten countries on to the Black Sea. Last weekend, Prince and Princess Heinrich von Furstenberg, the titular heads of the family who live in that palace, gave us a little tour of Walhalla, the German Hall of Fame situated further down the river from their park, in Regensburg, the perfectly preserved medieval town where a wonderful party celebrating Maya Schoenburg’s 50th birthday has left me feeling all of my 72 years. Make that 102. But first Walhalla.
As everyone knows, it was the dwelling place of the Gods, into which warriors chosen by the Valkyries were admitted. Ludwig I of Bavaria decreed in 1842 that men and women of great achievement, not necessarily German, both in times of war and peace, should be commemorated in the temple he had built and bequeathed to the Fatherland. Needless to say, Walhalla is a Greek temple, a cross of the Theseum and the Parthenon, 125 metres long and 55 metres high. It is Doric, carved from marble, and, unlike the Greek temples which look out onto a sea of cement, surrounded by beautiful verdant hills overlooking the Danube.
Last Saturday, while England lay under water, five Bismarcks, three Furstenbergs, two Lamberts, Edward Hutley and the mother of my children climbed 358 marble steps under a brilliant sun and watched the splendid views from the top. It was just about perfect, and a day I won’t soon forget. The richness of colours inside the temple is achieved by differently coloured kinds of marble and the effect is stunning and in very good taste. Who are the lucky ones whose busts we gawked at for couple of hours? Not hard to guess. Frederick the Great, Mozart, Beethoven, Kant, Schiller, Haydn, Dürer, Scharnhorst, Schwarzenberg, Copernicus, Erasmus, Gneisenau, Blücher, Moltke, Bismarck, Wagner, Luther, Charles V, Charlemagne, Ludwig himself, Bach, Schubert, Bruckner, Strauss (Richard), Weber, Einstein, Brahms, Handel, even Konrad Adenauer, whose bust made him look like a red Indian. Some 116 busts and 64 tablets of famous personalities put up at random, something I found quaint and interesting.
Having been inspired by Walhalla, we then lunched at the adjoining golf club, laid out in the privately owned land of the Prince von Thurn und Taxis. My rather slim chances of ever entering Walhalla got slimmer with each bottle of rosé, and then it was time to get rid of some of it, and what better place to do it than the banks of the Blue (greenish) Danube. It was a pre-World War II Hollywood director’s dream. Blond children playing in the waters, beautiful girls bicycling in the paths, families picnicking by the banks. No noise, no swearing, no oiks, no feral youths, nothing but beauty, civilised people and the river. I walked, jogged and did wind sprints and became a new man in a jiffy, ready to party. Regensburg, where the Thurn und Taxis palace is located, has the greatest concentration of original Romanesque and gothic architecture to be found north of the Alps, and is the most important centre of medieval buildings in southern Germany. The cathedral that dominates the old part is built in the classical French style and is the most significant gothic building in Bavaria, its stained glass windows reflecting gothic mysticism vis-à-vis light. Most of the guests were staying in an old bishop’s palace, the Bischofshof Hotel, behind the cathedral and separated by a marvellous beer garden where we spent most of our time. The hotel’s staff were all German, all extremely polite, anxious to please and some very attractive.
The baroque town is beautiful because it is intact, time machine stuff. And the mind wanders. To a letter by a Spectator reader politely reminding me of the behaviour of the Germans and the Japanese during the last war. Well, yes, but is vaporising and incinerating hundreds of thousands of civilians any better? Just because it’s done from the air? The answer is nein, it’s just victor’s hypocrisy at work.
But on to more pleasant matters. Maya Schoenburg’s younger sister, Gloria, is the Princess Thurn und Taxis, and in whose enormous and grandiose palace the ball took place. It is a baroque marvel, larger than Buckingham Palace I believe, certainly less grey and far gayer to look at. The good news is that we were only about 250, most of the German Gotha, ten Bismarcks, 12 Schoenburg — Glachaus, one Schoenburg -Hartenstein, eight Sayn — Wittgensteins, a couple of Hohenzollerns, a couple of Habsburgs, Tim Hoare, Christopher Balfour, Nicky Haslam, little old me and the Sunday Telegraph’s new columnist, my old (since 1957) friend, Joan Collins and her nice hubby. The bad news was that after one hour of trying to get the studs into his stiff shirt — the ball was white tie for men, red dress for ladies — and with the help of about three flunkies (his parents and brother) Nicolai Bismarck got them in, only to realise that the rare coloured studs were facing inward. By this time we were all already dancing. The best costume of the evening was — by far — Leopold Bismarck’s perfect (Anderson- and Sheppard-made) red cardinal’s habit. Heinrich Furstenberg’s red tails came second. The burghers drinking beer in the garden were amazed to see a cardinal puffing away and downing vodkas.
We dined under rococo ceilings, served by footmen in uniform, greeted by blasts of trumpets as we arrived, and danced — at first — to a full orchestra playing only waltzes. Chatting with Princess Eugenie and her mother Fergie, I was informed that she had never danced a waltz. So a 17-year-old and a 72-year-old tripped the light fantastic as if it were old Vienna, and then some. Later I cheated on the Speccie’s deputy editor and fell in love with Sophie Winkleman, so I’m writing this very broken-hearted.