Saturday, 19 July 2014

Black Flags over Mosul

The black flags of Isis are flying over Christian churches in Mosul. It is heartbreaking to think of what they symbolise: the ruthless persecution of innocent Christian men, women and children who are fleeing for safety from the city that has been their home for generations. The doorposts of Christian homes are now marked by a blood-red symbol: the Arabic letter N for Nazarene. It means they are to be slaughtered.

Mosul was already ancient when Christians first settled there in the 2nd century. It stands on the Tigris, one of the rivers that watered the Fertile Crescent and on whose banks some of the oldest civilisations in the world were established. Across the river stood the proud city of Nineveh, capital of the Assyrian Empire, where Sennacherib built a great palace in about 700BCE - you can see his magnificent palace reliefs in the British Museum. 

Mosul played a central part in the growth of Christianity in early times. By the 6th century, it was a bishopric of the Assyrian (Chaldean) Church. Some of the world's oldest Christian communities were founded in what is now Iraq, and the valley of the Tigris was home to many of them. Christians were indigenised there before Islam arrived. And when it did, a modus vivendi enabled Christians and Muslims for most of the subsequent centuries to live peaceably together. 

These ancient Christian communities harmed no one, did not subvert Islam, did not antagonise their Muslim neighbours. On the contrary, their members were exemplary citizens, aware of their minority status in an Islamic environment but respected as adherents of a fellow Abrahamic faith, a people of the book. They did not look for conflict, simply for a safe space in which to practise their faith peacefully as their forebears had done since time immemorial. 

The swift arrival of the radical Sunni movement called Isis has changed all that with a viciousness that has surprised the west. Crosses and statues over Christian churches have been toppled. An 1800 year old church has been destroyed. Christians have been warned: 'if you want to stay alive, convert to Islam at once, or pay the Christian tax (protection money) or get out of the city'. Most are fleeing, perhaps never to return. This exodus was already beginning ten years ago as in other places in Iraq; now it is in full spate. Few are left, for this is no place to stay when lives are at such risk. As are those of Shiite Muslims too - something we mustn't forget.

We weep with these exiles who weep beside the waters of Babylon. We pray for them, and as churches in safe, peaceful western Europe, we shall support them through refugee and aid agencies that are working to bring assistance as quickly as they can. They need to know that they can count on us not to forget them in their great need. They need to know that we shall keep their story alive in the media so that the nation is aware of their plight.

But there is something else we must do. It is to resist demonising Islam because of the cruelty of this rogue movement. Isis, like its parent body Al Qaeda, like Boko Haram in Nigeria, is utterly untypical of mainstream Islam. We mustn't allow these terrible events to cloud our response to a noble world faith with its values of dignity, honour and reverence for life. Instead we should make common cause with our Muslim friends and neighbours to denounce violence and terror, and support them as they speak out against the atrocities perpetrated in their name. The more they can do this, the more chance there is that radicalisation will be stanched before its poison gets expressed in bullets and bombs.

I once sat down with a senior imam I'd got to know. He too was a Sunni, from Saudi Arabia, not a westernised Muslim like most I had met. He gave me a copy of the Qur'an in which he had underlined the passages that spoke well of Christians. 'You are among these' he said, pointing to the Cathedral. So I asked him about the passages where Christians are derided or criticised. 'Those are about renegades who deny the Abrahamic faith' he said, 'not loyal, faithful, god fearing people like you.' 

I guess that Islam's reading of Christianity is a more complex matter, where so much is coloured by history; but I remember that encounter with warmth. It helped me to understand the respect with which Islam has in its best époques regarded Christianity. This, I think, is more characteristic of it than the bitterness and hatred that each day's headlines seem to underline and which do so much to fuel the Islamophobia that is becoming a worrying aspect of modern western attitudes. 

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Losing a Son to the Holy War

It is shocking to learn of Muslims from Britain who have been recruited by ISIS to fight in Syria and Iraq. The summons to jihad has proved irresistible. These young men are often bright and talented with great futures opening up before them. Now they are committed to killing in the name of a holy war.

I have been moved by listening to the father of Nasser, one of these young men. Nasser is from Cardiff and planned to go to medical school. He was brought up in a committed Muslim family whose values are 100% British. ‘This is my country’ says his father. ‘It is his country. He was born here in the hospital down the road. He has been educated here.’ Now he features in a recruitment video called 'There’s No Life Without Jihad'What has devastated his parents is that this has come out of the blue. ‘I was shocked, I was sad, I cried’ his father says. ‘It feels as if the ground under my feet has disappeared.’ Another of his sons is also missing, presumed to have gone with his brother. It’s a double tragedy.

It seems that the lad’s idealism wedded to his feeling for suffering people has made him a ready victim to those who have set out to radicalise him and others like him.The video depicts a man his parents can’t recognise any more as the son they love and have nurtured, so far-reaching has been the change in him. They have to conclude that his mind has come under not just the influence but the control of others; it has flipped into a wholly different way of reading the world from his moderate (his father’s word) Islamic upbringing. This kind of extreme religion is a world away from his formation as a child and an adolescent. He has, so to speak, been kidnapped by practitioners of religious craziness. He is a hostage. 

Every parent will empathise with this father’s moving testimony to his lost son. You worry about your kids: will they pass their exams? will they get involved with drugs or crime? will they find good partners? will they turn out to be the responsible citizens we bring them up to be? But jihad isn't on the radar. When something like this happens, I imagine it is a kind of death. I think of the father in the parable of the prodigal son. He had no choice but to watch his son abandon his family and leave for a far country. He could not know if he would ever see him again. He knew the sorrow of bereavement.

But that father never stops loving his son. When he falls on hard times, comes to his senses and decides to return, his father goes running to meet him. There is embracing, reconciliation, the joy of a welcome home. From the way he talks about him, I sense that Nasser’s father is like that. Far from disowning his son, he will go on loving him. It’s too painful to keep the family photos on show, so he has put them away. ‘Then we will have to wait.’ This is precisely what love entails. Like Jesus in the upper room, when we truly love, we go on loving to the end. However much waiting it means. 

And I believe that this is the clue. It would be so easy to be furious with a son who has done something as bizarre as this. The point is, he is a victim too. It's hard to see it this way, but it's important. He is no longer his own person: he has become someone else. This is how radicalisers work. Young men don't join radical jihadist groups. They are recruited. The blame lies not with the victim but with those who are exerting coersive power over him, altering his mind, reducing it to a state of unthinking obedience to the group’s doctrine. To see this happen to your child must be heartbreaking.

These are parents who have done all they could for their son. Now there is nothing left for them to do except to wait, and say their prayers, and if possible, try to find hope. In all its precariousness and pain, this is what love means: to go on holding and embracing him in their hearts, right to the end. 

We are with them in this terrible ordeal. As is God who is always the Compassionate and Merciful. 

Saturday, 31 May 2014

A Danube Journey Day 9: Prague

This is no longer a Danube journey, more a Vltava one, but you feel the pull of the Danube here in Prague. The day dawns grey and cold. There will not be much of a Prague Spring today. We exchange some euros for Czech korunas (odd to be in the EU but not in the euro-zone). We buy day passes for the Prague transport system and head into the metro. It proves a pleasure to ride; indeed, everyone says how user-friendly and well-integrated public transport in this city is. We get off at the stop above Prague Castle with an unpronounceable name, planning to walk down to it. Here I get into difficulties and resorting to my iPhone and Google maps, fail to notice the lamp post I walk violently into. This is an almost exact repeat of what once happened on Luxor station when I had my eye glued to the camera viewfinder. That time I broke my leg, though I did not realise it until we were back in England and baffled by the pain and swelling that refused to subside. Today, once the horizon has righted itself, I shall suffer nothing worse than a big bruise over my eye. But it is not a good start to the day's sightseeing. 

We reach the Castle. At once it becomes clear that the epithet 'castle' creates entirely the wrong expectation. I should have learned from the opening sentence of Nikolaus Pevsner's entry on Durham in The Buildings of England. My memory is that it goes something like this: 'Durham is one of the great experiences of Europe to those who appreciate architecture. The combination of cathedral and castle set on their rocky hill surrounded by the river can only be compared with Avignon and Prague.' This is an acropolis on which is built a city within a city. Like Durham once, like Vézelay still, you enter a walled enclosure that is partly a fortified bastion, partly a sacred ecclesiastical and pilgrimage site, partly a seat of temporal power and authority, partly a working town where people live and ply their trades. Once we see it in that way, so familiar from home, its palaces, churches and streets make sense. Here in this Kremlin, church and state belong to a single organism

The hill top is crowded with tourists. We buy joint tickets that admit us to the important attractions, beginning with St Vitus' Cathedral. Its jagged profile is a classic of high gothic exuberance. We long for a Pevsner to take round with us to help us make sense of this fascinating church. For now, we are content to enjoy its magnificent medieval spaces and the Baroque splendour of its shrines and monuments. The throng swirls round the church, discreetly managed by a large army of security men and women; yet tourism has not eroded the cathedral's spirituality. Perhaps, like Durham, the memory of saints like Wenceslaus and Jan Nepomuk makes a difference to how we experience the place. They are not as ancient as Cuthbert and Bede, but they exert a powerful pull and sense of protection in this, the spiritual heart of the Czech lands. Opposite the newly restored 14th century Golden Porch, we enter the Old Palace, another fascinating building with a long history. And then the Romanesque Basilica of St George, a fine austere foil for the florid splendour of the Cathedral.

Off the hill, we walk round the New Town. It has started to rain, so we don't linger in the streets, except where there are arcades from which to admire elegant government buildings, church spires and domes, and ubiquitous trams - for this city is one of the best endowed in Europe when it comes to the flanged wheel. Trams and churches are both good for cold, wet sightseeing days. St Nicholas is one more in the series of outstanding Baroque churches we have visited on this journey; its monumental figures of the fathers of the eastern church flanking the high altar are one of many highlights. We look inside a few more and risk becoming intoxicated on too much Baroque on empty stomachs. It is time to eat, and here we find out how modest prices are in Prague compared to most other capital cities we know.

You don't associate the famous Charles Bridge with gunmetal skies and pouring rain. But it can be interesting to see so-called 'iconic' sites in other than picture-postcard conditions. The sculptures along the half-kilometre length of the bridge offer an education in theology and Central European history, and I wish we had time to examine them in detail. In the gloom, the statues, many blackened and eroded, take on a more severe character than sunny photos suggest: gauntly silhouetted against the sky, they seem to assert their religious seriousness as men and women of dogged faith and remind us that in a city with its turbulent history, they are not to be trifled with. The oldest and most revered is St John Nepomuk, Prague's turbulent priest who dared to cross an irascible king. He was hurled from the bridge to a watery grave in 1393 (on St Cuthbert's Day). His statue stands on the exact spot, and it is an old Prague custom to touch the sculpture as you cross the bridge. I watch a father lift his toddler son and guide his hands to where the stone is worn shiny and smooth from millions of pious strokes. It reminds me of Dijon's chouette, the sculpted owl on a church wall in a pedestrian alley, another city's much-loved emblem. Shouldn't every city have one? I ask myself what Durham's might be. The sanctuary knocker on the Cathedral's north door, perhaps. 

By now seriously wet, we walk through Old Town Square with its astronomical clock and visit the twin-spired Cathedral of Our Lady Before Tyn. Is there an end to the splendours of Prague's churches? Only Rome seems to compare for the sheer number of magnificent church buildings clustered together in so small a space. Unlike most of the other big churches, this one is free to enter, and no photography is allowed. People are sitting quietly and praying, while visitors walk round with a respectful air. I doubt that the authentic spirituality of this or any church could simply be the result of good management and visitor policies. It feels like a habitus, a hard-won way of being that certainly needs cherishing, but feels as though it has been indigenous here for a long while. I like to imagine that this is true of Durham too. 

We have had enough of the cold rain. We head back to the hotel for welcome tea and cakes. In the evening, we come out again, and at last it is dry, though we are not going to be granted the sunset I had romantically wished for on this last night of our holiday. We cross the Charles Bridge again and gaze up at the Castle on the skyline. Street musicians are playing, among them an elderly woman with a kind, beautiful face who is turning the handle of her barrel-organ. She meets our eye with a radiant smile as we give her something. We find a little crêperie in the shadow of the bridge and enjoy savoury pancakes and a local peasant wine. After these days when we have seen so much that is grand and at times overwhelming, this intimate human note seems the right way to say farewell to Prague, and to this absorbing journey of discovery. 

Tomorrow we need to be up early for the flight back to England, and home.

A Danube Journey Day 8: Nuremberg and a Long Coach Journey

It is raining again. At Nuremberg we disembark and are bussed to the city centre. We are told we have 40 minutes before we leave for Prague. 40 minutes in Nuremberg! I have been here before, 20 years ago, when I spoke at an ecumenical conference. I'd taken the train from Ostende and loved that journey across Belgium and Germany. It was December, and all of Germany seemed lit up with coloured lights: no other country does Advent and Christmas so well. In Nuremberg's main square there was a Christmas Fair, a Christkindlmarkt. Market stalls sold sweetmeats and exquisite Christmas decorations; a choir sang Advent and Christmas music; families with young children wandered contentedly around in the crisp frosty air, many enjoying Lebkuchen washed down with Gluwein. At the heart of the square was the Christmas tree and next to it the Christkindl, the Christ Child in his crib surrounded by angels and shepherds with Mary and Joseph looking tenderly on. Today I'm reminded of that visit.

In 40 minutes, it is possible to visit two medieval churches nearby. Both are Lutheran, and I'm astonished at the quantity and the quality of the sculptures, mainly 15th to 17th century. Lutheranism was never iconoclastic in the way that Calvinism could be. The late medieval Calvary in St Seebald's reminds us of the quire screen in the Cathedral at Lübeck: an entire theologia crucis is written into the delicately drawn faces of the suffering Lord, his Mother and St John. I am not sure I would make a very good Lutheran: their liturgy is often long on words and short on symbolic actions, I sometimes feel. Yet I love worshipping in their churches where a reverent medieval piety is married to an elegant simplicity accompanied by great music. I think these 40 minutes have not been wasted.

We leave the towers and spires of the old town behind as the coach leaves for the autobahn. The suburbs of Nuremberg seem never-ending. At last we find the motorway and head east out of Germany. It is still raining. The Oberofälzer Wald presents an ocean of trees and forests through which we sail like a land cruiser. We reach the Czech border. Where once the iron curtain fell, we drive through almost without noticing. For travellers, the Schengen Accord has created a Europe without frontiers. That is an astonishing achievement, given our fractious European history. We should pay attention when we cross national borders if only to recognise that in the modern world, this global village where our lives are so interconnected, the idea of national frontiers seem (to me) anachronistic. 

Except for the UK and Ireland which are not signatories to Schengen, another example of how out of step we are with almost every other European Country. If asked how I describe my identity, I say that I feel European first, British second and English last. This must be due to my mother's German-Jewish origins: as fugitives from Nazi tyranny, she and my grandmother gave me the strongest possible sense of belonging to an entity bigger than nationhood. And as a Jewish-born Christian believer, the ultimate human community with whom I identify is nothing less than a worldwide people of faith and hope. Of that, a Europe that is home to people of many faiths and cultures could be a wonderful symbol of emerging worldwide community. An offshore island that is more and more defensive towards Europe has little to contribute to that vision. 

In the Czech Republic it stops raining. We arrive at Prague and catch a first glimpse of its beautiful city-centre before being installed in a large modern hotel on the 21st floor. It is as different from the cruise ship as it could be, and this sudden fracture of shipboard intimacy is disorientating. We have a magnificent view - but not of the historic city, rather its commercial and residential quarters. There is a large conference centre in the foreground with a metro station immediately below. Traffic queues on new roads that entwine round car-parks and high-rise apartments. We could be in any modern western European city. 

This sense of familiarity is something to notice. Unlike Budapest or Bratislava, Prague feels western. That surprises me, given that it was once the capital of one of Eastern Europe's most repressive communist regimes. Perhaps it always did look west, despite the Cold War, particularly fertile soil in which a Prague Spring could happen. For this has always been a devoutly catholic city, its proud medieval buildings dressed up in imperial Habsburg attire. We look forward to walking the streets tomorrow to find out. 

A Danube Journey Day 7: Regensburg and the Danube Gorge

There is talk of life after the ship. Yesterday we were given instructions by our tour leader about what will happen on when we disembark and are bussed to Prague: something about orange ribbons for this group and yellow ribbons for the other.... No doubt it will all become clear when the time comes. At breakfast guests are discussing the experience and comparing the Danube with other river cruises they have done. Our conversation partners think this ship is second to none, but have reservations about the river itself. They found their Rhine cruise more rewarding because, they say, there is more of interest to enjoy on the banks, and more traffic on the river itself than on the Danube. 'Those long boring stretches of forest - the Danube is a plain Jane among rivers compared to the Rhine' says one.

Meanwhile, the ship has sailed on through the night towards Regensburg. We are at the northernmost point on the Danube. We pass the huge folly called Valhalla, a copy of the Parthenon of Athens transplanted to the north shore of the Danube. I break away from breakfast to photograph it from a cold and rainy top deck. Its white marble gleams incongruously amid the lush dripping vegetation. But it creates a nice undulating reflection in the water which may prove worth getting damp for. 

This old imperial city escaped destruction in the war, so it has one of the best medieval town centres in Germany. We are moored downstream of the famous old bridge, but it's wreathed with scaffolding while repairs are carried out. So we won't get the famous view back from the bridge to the towers and spires of the city. I have worked out a circular walking tour (saves €18 on the official one) so we set off to begin at the Cathedral.

The Dom is an exquisite building. Its twin open work gothic spires are very German: echoes of Ulm, Cologne and Strasbourg. It is largely untouched by the Baroque embellishments you come to expect in Bavaria. In a crypt, Romanesque foundations and a couple of beautiful piers survive. The nave's noble proportions create a sense of peacefulness and harmony: you don't want to speak aloud in this holy environment. The medieval stained glass is outstanding. At the west end, in the centre of the nave, a huge bronze depicts a 19th century bishop kneeling in front of the crucifix, in itself perhaps a bit too rhetorical in taste, but effective in suggesting a sense of scale in this soaring gothic space. 

What moves us most is a small rough sculpture on the wall near the west door. It shows two women embracing, one very pregnant. The kiss on the lips is an audacious but endearing way of expressing the love of these two women, who must be the Blessed Virgin and her cousin Elizabeth at the Visitation. This naive but charming sculpture looks medieval to me, but who can tell? It is in the darkest corner of the building, so impossible to photograph without a tripod, though I try to steady the camera against the angle of a pier opposite. But a troupe of school children passes by, and I abandon the attempt. The memory will be enough.

Outside the Dom, a big stage is being erected. This is for the Katholischen Tag, a weekend of church-based activities inspired by the Berlin Kirchentag. We walk on into the heart of the Altstadt. By the Lutheran parish church we buy figs from a market stall. We visit another church, St Emmeram's, an abbey church at the core of a cluster of former monastic buildings that are now museums. This fascinating building has work of every age from early medieval to Baroque, including a beautiful Romanesque crypt. Then to the so-called 'Scottish Church', founded by Irish missionaries at the time of Columbanus. It has an amazing Romanesque North door, now glassed in to preserve it from erosion by wind and weather. 

It is a joy to roam the streets of the old city. As we reach the river again, we come across another medieval church dedicated to St Oswald. It is a pity that it's locked: we would love to know whether this is our Northumbrian Oswald or some other. A streetside Google search provides the answer and a lot more information besides. This is indeed our saint whose head lies interred with Cuthbert in the shrine at Durham Cathedral. It appears that alone among the North Saxon saints, he had a following in continental Europe in the Middle Ages. This is not principally because he instigated and promoted the Christian mission to Northumbria, but on account of his holy, chivalrous life which became an emblem of how a Christian knight should behave. In the brutalised era of the crusades, the memory of such a saint was evidently treasured. In Regensburg Cathedral, one of the medieval windows shows him feeding the poor in an episode related by Bede. 

The afternoon sees us on the coach for Kelheim. On the way we pass the house belonging to Pope Benedict XVI. As Joseph Ratzinger, he was a professor of theology at Regensburg. The coach slows to a pious crawl as our guide (an observant catholic) tells us reverently about it. It is now a museum devoted to his papacy. We walk through the undistinguished town and are regaled with the achievements of Bavarian King Ludwig I whose statue we pass. My memory of Bavarian history is sketchy, and I am prone to confuse this Ludwig with the mad Wagnerite of Neuschwanstein, a mistake our guide warns us severely not to make. 

This is the highest point at which the Danube is navigable by big ships like ours. So we board a smaller vessel to sail up the Danube Gorge. On the cliff top Ludwig I's monument to Bavarian freedom dominates. It commemorates the casting off of the yoke of Napoleon, but as one writer wittily observes, it resembles nothing so much as a carved gasometer. The river gorge is impressive, though we have to wrap up warmly as a fierce wind is blowing down it. The Danube is forced between high limestone cliffs in a narrow defile whose rapids, and bandits, made this a treacherous stretch of river for sailors bringing goods downstream to sell in the markets of Regensburg. A Franciscan hermitage is cut into the rock, a fitting place of prayer at a dangerous place. A small statue of the watery martyr St John Nepomuk stands alone on the rock face cutting a strangely comforting profile. Then the boat rounds a bend, the cliffs recede and we enjoy our first sight of the Weltenberg Monastery.

It is the oldest monastic site in Bavaria, founded like the Cathedral in Regensburg in the age of the Irish monks like Columbanus. These well-travelled men knew about the Egyptian desert monks and modelled their own religious practices on theirs. And while the Baroque buildings of Weltenberg are a world away from the desert hermits, the riverine site reminds me strongly of hermitages I have seen by the wadis of the Middle East. The rain starts to come down. Inside the courtyard, the scene is more like a bear garden than a monastery. A cafe under canvas is busy with large throngs of visitors. The place's claim to fame is that it brews its version of brown ale and has done this longer than any other monastic brewery. 

We head for the church. It takes a while for our eyes to adjust to the darkness. But then the extraordinary splendour of this building begins to be revealed. It is one of the best Baroque churches in Germany, created for the Benedictines by the Asam brothers who designed the more famous Asamkirche in Munich. One was a sculptor, the other a painter. The church is an ellipse with a small narthex at one end and the altar at the other. It is dedicated to St George whose colourful legend has fed to the full the imagination of the artists. This church is a perfect theatre, a drama of Ecclesia Triumphans, as we were reminded in a painting on the ceiling where we came in. But it's also a theatre of the soul, and in the exuberant profusion of sculpture and painting the message is the same: take religion to heart, listen, hear, obey, and let this foretaste of heaven inspire you to live in preparation for it. 

Our guide is good at explaining the complex symbolic world of this church but it needs longer than 20 minutes to do justice to it. The rain is unremitting. The group is despondent: it has forgotten what rain is like. We had expected to see more of the monastery than just the church, fine though it is. But apart from the museum and the shop, this appears to be the Weltenburg experience. Everyone heads for the tea tent. We joke with our guides about the English weather. I go back to the church.  Another English-speaking group has arrived so I listen to their guide and notice how good the acoustic in this building is. She starts with a joke that I can't believe I've never heard before. What Saint is always depicted with his mother in law? St George of course. But I have to think about it for a second.

I try to capture the marvellous trompe l'oeil effect the artists have created on the cupola above my head. Only it isn't a cupola at all: the ceiling is almost flat. One of the Asam brothers is shown leaning over the rim smiling down at us as from a distant balcony. It's pure magical realism. But it's likely that my snap-shot (which I won't dignify with the title of photograph - it's done in too much haste) will flatten out the curvature that has been so carefully contrived in this illusion. And that prompts the further question about this brilliant but seductive art. What is truth, and what is illusion? I want to say that Baroque tells lies for the truth's sake - like all art, of course, but there is something particularly blatant about the way Baroque does it. Romanesque and gothic seem more truthful, somehow, because their piers, arcades and vaults disclose their structural principles - and yet a great Romanesque space like Durham Cathedral still contrives to make itself look bigger than it really is. It's not just a question of the aesthetic. When we're talking about church architecture, it's fundamentally a matter of theology and spirituality. It would take a Von Balthazar to do it justice. But here is a note to self: research the theology of Baroque when you get home. Try to understand the principles on which St Paul's Cathedral is built, for there are illusions a plenty in that greatest of English Baroque churches. 

The ship is waiting for us at the entrance to the Rhine-Main-Donau canal. The original canal was an ambitious 19th century project deigned to allow cargo to be transported by water all the way from the North Sea to the Black Sea. But the narrow canal was unusable by the turn of the 20th century. The Nazis gave Europe her first motorways, and they also had ambitions to build a new canal across the watershed of Europe. It was only in the 1990s that the project was completed, a considerable engineering feat given the physical geography it had to traverse. So here is where we bid farewell to the Danube. The ship heads through the first lock less than a mile from the canal mouth. It's time for the farewell gala reception and dinner. The ship's crew are brought out one by one to be loudly applauded, and it is true that from bridge to galley, they have been outstanding. We say farewell to our fellow-passengers lucky enough to be cruising all the way to Amsterdam. Tomorrow we shall be back on dry land and head for Prague.

A Danube Journey Day 6: Germany and Passau

There is a lot of noise in the night, accompanied by lurid sodium lights behind the cabin curtains. This is due to the locks we have passed through, and to the industrial environment of Linz. It's a poetic name for a city, with the added lustre of having a Mozart symphony named after it, but the literature does not linger here and neither do we. No one seems to have slept well, so insomnia is a conversation topic at breakfast. There is smoked salmon to enjoy with our scrambled eggs, also much commented upon.  We lament the weight we must be putting on. 

The morning finds us gliding through a steeply wooded gorge. The river is narrower here, and not so energetic. It is not unlike the Durham river gorge, except for the profusion of evergreens and the houses with their large Alpine-style overhanging roofs. Onion dome spires slip into view, and gently out again. At the lock at Jochenstein, we notice a little shrine to the Virgin Mary perched on a rock at the end of a jetty. It's a reminder of the deep-rooted Catholicism of Austria and Southern Germany. The Rhine myth of the Lorelei singing from their rock to lure ships to destruction is told here too. In earlier times, there would have been dangerous rapids at these places, and boatmen would offer devout prayers to the Blessed Virgin for protection as they hurtled downstream on white water. At another lock there is a chapel where votive masses were once said for the same purpose. 

This stretch of the river marks the border between Germany and Austria. This was never a linguistic or cultural frontier, but across the Danube two world empires once faced each other: Prussia and Austria-Hungary. Today as we glide gently between two European nations, we learn of the EU election results across the continent. It is alarming that nationalist parties have made big gains almost everywhere, especially in our beloved France, seduced by the Front National into  blushing deep blue. In North East England, the region has returned two Labour members and one UKIP: not as good as I'd hoped, not as bad as I'd feared. 

On board ship, few seem to be much troubled by this news, even if they have heard it, though we talk to another couple from the North who share our dismay. The ship sails dreamily westwards. There is talk of playing quoits on deck, though we see no evidence that it happens. Novels are read, card-games played, snapshots taken, and in the library, jigsaws are worked on. Some speculate about Passau and what it will have to offer. But underneath the river's tranquil surface are powerful currents and dangerous shoals. All along its length the Danube calls for good navigational skills if ships are to avoid disaster. It's a grim metaphor of how Europe seems to be at the moment, just like it was a century ago and again in the 1930s. Someone tweets that in this Great War centenary year, it is a bleak irony that we are not remembering why the League of Nations was born. Here on the Danube, this river that has both divided and joined together continental Europe at different times, even the most superficial sense of history must make you wonder about the Eurosceptic amnesia that is overtaking the continent, and what the cost may turn out to be. How the peace-seeking founding fathers of the European project would lament this drift away from their noble vision. 

We leave chocolate-box Austria as we pass under a railway bridge by a grimy industrial town. This marks the point at which the Danube becomes a wholly German river. Germany is its birthplace, and it is German speaking culture that defines so much of its character. Along the bank runs a road called the Nibelungenstrasse, a reminder of 'holy German art'. It was news to me that the origins of the Nibelung sagas belong mostly not to the Rhine but to the Danube. It was Wagner, one of the 19th century's great myth makers, who transferred the legends northwards, perhaps because even he could not envisage Danube-Maidens singing rapturously about Donau-gold. It would have been nice if the ship had played excerpts from The Ring to give cultural depth to this Danube journey. Instead, we are treated to songs from the 50s and 60s which someone must think suits the age-group of the cruise. 

Some don't like their Danube trip sullied by industry and commerce along its banks. To me, it not only contributes variety and adds to the photographic possibilities: it also prevents the cruise from being simply a voyage through a theme park. Stretches of the river like the Wachau and the Danube Bend are (cliché alert) breathtakingly beautiful, but this great watery highway across Europe is so much more than that. It's important for the integrity of travel, any travel, to try to see it in its wholeness. Durham Cathedral is magnificent on its own, but it is all the better for being understood against its wider background of the industrial North East, the pit villages and their mining traditions. As a bishop said to me in my first year in Durham, attend the Miners' Gala service and understand what the Cathedral is really about. 

No sooner are we in Germany than the ship rounds a bend and Passau comes into view. Here is another city that needs to be approached by water to get a sense of its historic importance as well as its incomparable setting. It stands at the confluence of three rivers, the Danube, the Inn and the Ilz. From a distance, it sits above the water like an improbable vision of towers and onion-domed spires, a heavenly Jerusalem surrounded by the rivers of Eden (well, three of them), the waters of life. The old city with its cathedral is built on a peninsula, like Durham. Also like Durham, its bishopric had palatinate powers, and in a final Durham correspondence, the bishop lived in a grand castle, the Veste Oberhaus that stands guard over the Danube-Inn confluence. Our ship parks directly below this striking bastion. Once off the gangplank and we are on to the cobbles of the medieval city's streets.

Passau is full of good things, but the Cathedral outshines them all. Like Melk, it is exuberantly Baroque, but there is a lightness and restraint at Passau that allows the outstanding spatial awareness of the Baroque style to be seen to full effect. Baroque is often supposed to be a decayed Renaissance style in which the understanding of space and the way different volumes interact with one another has been sacrificed to a busy profusion of detail which, however fine in itself, has compromised the unity and integrity of the architecture. I don't see it that way. To me, Baroque is a theatre of illusion, an intelligent and subtle manipulation of space to exalt its dramatic qualities.  Scale and perspective are everything: a great Baroque church should beckon to the imagination and invite the worshipper to give it full reign. No wonder the Jesuits fell for it in such a big way (perhaps our young guide at Melk didn't quite appreciate this when he jokingly said he would rather be a Jesuit than a Benedictine). Perhaps it's more surprising that the Benedictines in Southern catholic lands fell in love with Baroque as well. But apart perhaps from Ottobeuren and the incomparable Asamkirche in Munich, I have never seen it done so well as here. 

One detail touches me. At an altar to St Joseph we see a 17th century painting. It's of no great merit, but its subject matter is unusual. It shows St Joseph and the Holy Child in a loving embrace. No doubt it was commissioned for this altar. My book Lost Sons was about fathers and sons in the Bible and this painting might have made an ideal cover for it. I try to remember whether I've ever seen Joseph and Jesus as the centrepiece of an old master before. Nothing comes to mind. 

Back to Baroque. It doesn't please everyone. I overhear another visitor say, pointing to the marvellous pulpit festooned with gilded angels and saints, 'I know what I would do with all that gold, and it wouldn't be building temples like this'. Another visitor from a different ship asks if we speak English, and can we please explain why that man is carrying a scallop shell. So we talk about St James and the pilgrimage to Santiago. Then he starts comparing Passau with Melk. 'An obscene and tasteless waste of money' he says, and makes a gesture. I protest that Baroque is playful and celebratory but he is not having it. 'To blow all that cash in that way - it's like a spoiled child with a paintbox who's emptied all the contents at once without caring'. Out of my hearing, though still in Jenny's, he likens it to a brothel. I ponder for a bit. I've learned that this sort of dismissive comment, however crudely put, does sometimes hold a kernel of truth - our young guide at Melk was perhaps saying something similar, if a bit off-message. I sometimes say at Durham that if we claim to follow the humble Carpenter of Nazareth, we should not have too easy a conscience about our great cathedrals. 

We walk through the medieval city. The Pfarrkirche of St Paul is fine too, more lightly Baroque, with elegant ebony woodwork against which the profiles and colours of the sculptures stand out to brilliant effect. There is a modern side-chapel for silent prayer, a womb-like cave with stylish light-oak seats that are among the most comfortable we have sat in, and much better for prayer and meditation than most church pews. In front of the Rathaus whose ornate tower presides over the waterside, children are playing.   Visitors are photographing something on the wall. It is another hydrometer, showing the levels to which the river has flooded in recent centuries. Last year, 2013, it rose to an extraordinary 4 metres above ground, nearer 6 or 8 above normal. This has only been exceeded once in recorded history, in 1801. But no doubt he inhabitants of Passau are learning that with climate change, it is bound to happen again. Soon, probably. 

I reckon I have time to climb up to the Veste Oberhaus on the opposite bank for the view. The rush hour traffic swirls relentlessly round the end of the suspension road bridge where I have to cross. I head up the steep steps noting a plaque paying tribute to Prince Ludwig. Near the top, there is a lightning flash. The sky to the east is ominously black. I take a few photographs of the old city below, don a lurid purple waterproof to cover my camera, and head back down in haste. It will not be long before the ship will set sail. Gin and tonic awaits.

A Danube Journey Day 5: Dürstein and Melk

On a beautiful morning, we set off to climb up to the ruins of the Burg that perches above the little village of Dürnstein. It is a steep but rewarding clamber up hundreds of steps through deciduous woods where wild poppies bring colour to rocky outcrops. This castle has a place in English Plantagenet history because Richard the Lionheart was imprisoned here as he tried to get back to England during the crusades. The view up and down the valley is magnificent. The church presides over the village, its blue and white icing-sugar tower a beautiful foil for the red roofs of the houses that cluster around it. A dirty barge chugs lazily upstream trailing a long wedge of silvery wake in the brown waters. We exchange polite Grüss Gott greetings as we walk, sometimes answered in kind or with a friendly 'Morning'. On the way down, we pause to read the interpretative plaques that line the route. It is very well done. Here is tourism with intelligence. 

The village is one of those show-pieces that set out to please tourists. It draws hundreds of thousands of visitors every year, many of them on day trips from Vienna. Cruise ships like ours berth there. Every shop sells souvenirs, including jams and liqueurs made from the ubiquitous apricot that is this region's speciality. Purveying olde-world charm is a marketing tactic that always works and it's no wonder that we all fall for it. Durham has it to some extent, Vézelay and Mont Saint Michel even more, so we are used to its devices and desires; yet at the same time it provides employment and livelihood to local people for whom, but for tourism, these remote parts of Central Europe might well be suffering socially and economically, even in affluent Austria.

I go back to the church we called in on before the climb. It is a former Augustinian Abbey, a gem of pure baroque architecture and art. The elaborate decoration is colourful and playful, yet the intimacy of the church keeps the baroque tendency to excess in check. It's a place where you can pray. A walk through the monastic buildings leads to a little terrace on the side of the tower. Here you are in the company of sculpted saints and angels, and of carved cherubs who compete for space to enjoy the beautiful view of the river. While architects and art historians rightly sing the praises of Ottobeuren, Vierzehnheiligen and Melk, this little church shows Baroque at its very best, in its mastery of scale, its theatre of illusion, its focus on detail and its spirituality of joyful celebration.

Melk is our destination on a hot afternoon. It has long been on my list of must-see great churches. There is a splendid vista from the river as we approach this proud, ancient monastery. Like Durham, it is built on an acropolis, 'half church of God, half castle 'gainst the....', or, if not a castle, then a palace for emperors and kings who came here on pilgrimage with their retinues and expected to be treated with palatial honours. This doesn't by itself explain the ambition with which Melk was rebuilt as a masterpiece of baroque in the early 18th century. Its renaissance as one of the most splendid high places of Christendom owes more to the defeat of the Turks, and the aspiration to celebrate the glories of the Catholic Church. This it does with an élan few other places can muster.

Our guide is a young man who cannot be more than 20. He is exemplary, without doubt the best we have had so far.  What makes a good guide? This is something I have pondered in Durham where we have some excellent guides. He or she should: be knowledgable (of course); be enthusiastic about their place; have insight about its meaning, not just its heritage; be a very good communicator (in the case of foreigners like us, this includes fluency in the language); manage the time well and know how to move people through a site courteously but efficiently; and - an elusive skill this - know enough about their guests to intuit how much or how little to convey. In Pilgrim's Progress, travellers must enter the House of the Interpreter if they are to understand the landscape they are passing through. Interpretation is a tricky assignment. But this school-leaver has what is needed, as well as the personal charm that always helps. 

The tour through the monastery begins in an enormous elegant courtyard from which we access the guest quarters where imperial visitors were housed. Everything is on a monumental scale. We reach a beautiful plaster-vaulted corridor fully 200 metres in length, a lot longer than our ship. The state rooms have been converted into an exhibition that presents a time-line of the monastery's history. It begins with St Benedict and the first word of his Rule for Monks: Höre, 'Listen!'. This word is projected on the end wall and is visible the whole length of the exhibition. The first room is devoted to  Benedict and his vision of monastic life, the next to the foundations of Melk in the 11th century and the third to the Romanesque and Gothic periods. The fourth room brings us to the Baroque era and the creation of the present monastic buildings. Here, the exhibits are shown in a hall of mirrors, no doubt a reference to Versailles' Hall of Mirrors. There is a threefold message here: that the Monarch who is honoured here is no mere Sun King but a divine Ruler; that baroque plays with illusion for the sake of truth; and that 'we see through a glass darkly, but then face to face', a text that is displayed as you gaze around the room. 

After an excursus on the Enlightenment, the exhibition ends with the present and the activity of the monastery today. Here, our guide tells us that he recently graduated from the high school that is run by the monks and will shortly go to university at Vienna to study theology. Since he has spoken with such eloquence about the religious life, I ask him whether he is a postulant at Melk. He laughs and says that if he were to opt for the religious life, it would not be in these opulent Benedictine surroundings, but in a more radical order such as the Jesuits. The question we don't pursue is whether the Rule doesn't itself call for a far simpler kind of community life than the 18th century monks at Melk were capable of understanding. What would Benedict make of this wondrously exuberant temple of art and culture? Possibly he would be disturbed by it. But might the same not be said of the great Romanesque Benedictine communities like Cluny and Glastonbury and Durham itself? This was precisely the 12th century Cistercians' quarrel with the Benedictines. Anyone from Durham can't have too easy a conscience about this story. 

Nevertheless, the community here should be given full marks for the way they have told their story. This is far from being a dry record of historical information laced by a surfeit of artefacts. It's clear that someone has thought hard about how to present the spiritual meaning of a community's search for truth: at every turn, the visitor is invited to think about how this place and the investment made in it down the ages can speak to people today. Like the messages carried by Baroque angels and putti on the walls of the church exhorting the worshipper to attend to truth, the exhibition plays on the meaning of that single word Höre from initial invitation to final reflection. Evangelism through art and heritage: I have not seen it done better. 

The ship sets off and enters a lock. The architecture of Danube locks is functional. The lines of the control rooms, hydro-electric dams, sluices and long jetties is severely plain, recalling us to functionalism after an afternoon of Baroque fantasies. You might even call it Cistercian: on this beautiful river, a lock has a job to do and there is no concession to charm. I look back to the east, and there, floating serenely above this brutal symbol of modernity stands the monastery of Melk high on its hill. The western towers and central dome are brilliantly illuminated by the setting sun, like an apparition of Jerusalem the Golden. The vision fades as the ship sails on westwards. Soon, Melk has become a memory. And it is time for dinner.