Music to my ears

Siegfried WendelSiegfried Wendel holds up a thin metal disc. “Here’s the first-ever computer program,” he chuckles, pointing out perforations in the metal disc which form a simple binary code of instructions. He inserts the disc into a slot in a large upright box, gets it spinning and the resonant notes of a piano sonata fill the room.

Then he picks up a black wooden chair to reveal a Swiss-made musical box hidden inside the seat and activated by downward pressure. It’s the tuneful 19th Century forerunner of the whoopee cushion! Like many of the amazing mechanical instruments in Herr Wendel’s wonderful Rhine museum, this musical chair was found by chance,  abandoned and broken in an old junk shop.

Dressed in his black hat and long black coat, this genial, bewhiskered curator looks as if he’s stepped from the pages of Lord of the Rings. A few happy hairy-footed hobbits would hardly be a surprise addition to the remarkable house in Rudesheim on the Rhine that is home to Siegfried’s Mechanisches Musikkabinett.

This rambling house is called the Bromserhof, bits of which reputedly date from 1310. The house is within earshot of the rowdy Drosselgasse, a narrow lane of wine bars and souvenir shops that in summer is Rudesheim’s main visitor attraction. But take my word on this, you’ll have a more rewarding time at Siegfried’s museum.

Siegfried 7The Bromserhof itself is a teasing architectural treat with its pointy shingle-covered turrets, white plaster walls and heavy wooden beams, its stone cellars and its many rooms linked by creaking wooden staircases.

Inside you’ll find every imaginable type of mechanical instrument, large and small, most of them rescued from almost certain oblivion.

These delightful animated machines were home entertainment eons before the advent of the Playstation or iPad. They came in all sizes from palm-sized musical boxes to a huge, ornate 1888  “doll automatorgan” complete with chorus line of dancing dolls in traditional costume. Now that’s entertainment!

I’m entranced by the many wondrous sounds emanating from this remarkable collection. The oldest piece is a 1780 mechanical flute organ that, suitably, is kept in the oldest room of the Bromershof, a room where you need stoop to avoid bumping into low-slung beams. Siegfried also has an exact copy of the first Edison “tinphonia” phonograph from 1877.

Siegfried 8Rudesheim is located on the most beautiful section of the Rhine, the stretch of river between Koblenz and Mainz where magnificent castles occupy the high ground. The village is tucked into an elbow of the river and surrounded by steep vineyards.

In summer months its streets are swamped by day trippers and passengers pouring off an ever-growing flotilla of river cruise ships. Paying a visit to the Bromserhof is proof that making the simple effort to take just a few more steps can sometimes transform dross into total enchantment.

Siegfried’s Mechanical Music Cabinet, Im Brömserhof, Oberstraße 29, 65385 Rüdesheim
Phone: +49 67 22 4 92 17, fax: +49 67 22 45 87.  e-mail:

There be dragons here!

The prospect of getting close to dragons was playing havoc with my appetite. I picked halfheartedly at my breakfast as our boat swung at anchor off the most legendary of Indonesia’s Spice Islands.

indo map

We’d made a spectacular dawn approach to the island of Komodo, sailing past scattered silhouettes of volcanic outcrops that broke the surface of the sea like giant, ragged teeth. As the sky shifted from an inky purple to soft pink some wag on deck cried out, “Welcome to Jurassic Park”.

Over many centuries these fabled islands have lured adventurers and fortune hunters. They came in search of sandalwood and beeswax, cinnamon, mace, cloves and nutmeg. My interest was more prosaic. I wanted to see one of the biggest and ugliest reptiles on the planet.

We began our hike into the island’s dry and dusty interior. I jumped nervously at every rustle and crackle in the surrounding bush.

dragon headI felt a bit like I was on a foot safari in Africa, but here on Komodo no-one carried a rifle for protection. Then I saw my first Komodo dragon, lying motionless in deep shade. It moved its head to regard us with a baleful reptilian stare and when it raised itself for a better look a tangible shiver ran through our small group.

Komodo dragons up close look like baggy-skinned, green-brown  lizards on steroids. They’re more bulky than crocodiles and  move slowly with a shambling gait, although they can accelerate alarmingly over a brief distance. Any creature so formidably armed, which includes a foul, poisonous saliva in addition to mighty claws, deserves tremendous respect and, preferably, is to be photographed using a telephoto lens.

We followed our guide to a place where several of the fearsome creatures were lounging in a large, shallow depression surrounded by thickets. As we watched, a pair of small deer  ventured from among the trees to forage within metres of the elongated predators. Normally prey, the deer showed no fear. Maybe they knew the dragons had,  just like us, already had breakfast?

komodo dragon_0001The basking lizards gave the impression they might languish all day. The only regular activity was the flickering of their great tongues as they sampled scents in the air. But then the arrival of a man carrying a sack stirred them into action. The sack was filled with chunks of meat. It explained the dragons’ lack of interest in a small deer for brunch.

This feeding was a far more palatable sight for us that the usual dragon feast of a live goat tethered to a post then left to await its inevitable, terrible fate.

The dragons on Komodo island roam free but, because they get fed regularly as part of the tourist experience, groups of them tend to congregate in one spot waiting for the next dinner gong. My Komodo experience was not as thrilling as encountering these prehistoric relics at random in the bush. But who in their right mind would want to accidentally bump into a dragon?

Kitsap uncovered

Kitsap Totem poleFurther roaming on the Kitsap Peninsula uncovers a cultural smorgasbord although, historically, this is the ancestral land of the Suquamish, Skokomis, Chemakum, S’Klallam and Toanhooch tribes and the home of Sealth, who is better known as Chief Seattle after who the Pacific Northwest city is named.

Chief Seattle is buried in the Suquamish Memorial Cemetery on the Port Madison Indian reservation and his memory honoured each year on Chief Seattle Days, held in Suquamish over the third weekend in August. I drive to Old Man House Park to see the chief’s home and the Suquamish Museum and Cultural Centre to see ancient baskets, carvings and documents and cultural artifacts. 

There’s nothing morbid about my side trip to the S’Klallam cemetery near Port Gamble, where graves are set around a central totem pole, each resting place festooned with colourful personal memorabilia including photos, tinsel, toys and even the odd vehicle number plate or road sign.

Point No Point in Kitsap’s far north is the name given an expanse of beach covered with driftwood and fringed by forest and wetlands. It was named for its deceptive appearance, which often fooled unsuspecting navigators.  Others were also fooled. A plaque near the Point No Point lighthouse commemorates an 1855 treaty signed on this spot a mere four years after the first white settlers set foot in the Seattle area. The treaty ceded vast tracts of Indian land – “from the crest of the Olympic Mountains to Puget Sound” – to the US Government. In return, the resident Indian tribes got small reservation and hunting rights plus a sum of money, to be paid out over many years.

Port Gamble store

Port Gamble store

Scandinavian heritage is a dominating theme in the trim little village of Poulsbo on Liberty Bay, also known as “Little Norway” and fine-tuned to tourism with a trio of marinas and a street of galleries, gift shops, cafes and the “famous” Sluys bakery.

Poulsbo’s annual lutefisk dinner celebrates a traditional Norwegian dish of reconstituted white-fleshed stockfish. It’s an acquired taste. Much more to my liking is the Marine Science Centre with its jelly fish exhibit and saltwater touch tank.

Puget Sound’s top marine treasure is the geoduck, pronounced “gooey duck”. It’s the world’s largest burrowing clam, with a neck that can grow as long as a metre. The geoduck is also the second longest-living animal organism after the Galapagos tortoise. I watch crates of them being unloaded from fishing boats in Brownsville harbour. These clams usually end up in chowder although the neck can be eaten sliced thin and raw, like sashimi.

Kitsap harbour

Marina, Bainbridge Island

Handmade, homemade or homegrown is the trinity of criteria for all things sold at the Bainbridge Farmers’ Market on Saturday mornings from April to October. It’s the biggest of the various weekly markets on the peninsula and provides an excellent showcase of peninsula endeavour. 

I mix and meet friendly locals and sample fruits and berries, artisan breads and cheeses, vegetables, local tuna, eggs, pies, cakes and biscuits, jams, honey, island wines and local craft beer.