One day in Amsterdam

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For a while now I’ve been toying with the idea of a cruise. I don’t mean sailing around the Med or Caribbean, poolside, on a floating luxury hotel; that’s not really me. I’m thinking more of northern European fjords or the distant bleak but beautiful archipelagos of the British Isles. Before making any plans, I had to find out if I – life long sufferer of travel sickness – had sea legs.  There was also the matter of my slight fear of sinking hundreds of miles from dry land…

A mini-cruise to Amsterdam presented a perfect opportunity to test out my personal fitness to sail, overcome my anxieties about drowning at sea, and to visit a beautiful city on my destination wish list.

I confess that I was nervous about sailing the briny waves but I was determined to conquer my fear of finding myself in a rendezvous with Neptune on the sea bed.

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At the Port of Hull in north-east Yorkshire we boarded the good ship Pride of Rotterdam for the overnight voyage and checked into our cabin on deck 10.  It was time to explore our vessel. First stop was the sun deck where very strong winds made it difficult to hold the camera still,  but after noting the location of the lifeboats (and committing this to memory) I got a few shots of Hull, including the Humber Bridge.

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The not so sunny sun-deck where strong winds made photography very difficult
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Humber Bridge

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Following a happily eventless night, we arrived alive and well in Rotterdam. From there, a convenient coach ride brought us to our destination, Amsterdam, about 90 minutes away.

We only had a day and it was already mid morning so time was of the essence. I had lots of ideas about what I wanted to see but had to be realistic as the clock was ticking. This was a day to get a flavour of the city; I could return for a longer visit another time.

Amsterdam is known as the Venice of the North due to the extensive network of canals which weave around the city.  A canal cruise seemed like a good way to take in some of the sights with the option of disembarking to visit any points of interest along the way.

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The starting point was the boat and bus tour hub across from Amsterdam Central train station. I made a mental note of the ideally situated chain hotel just metres away which would be a perfect place to stay on a future visit.

Bus and boat tours were plentiful but queues were long. We waited for 25 minutes – a big chunk of time out of our short day but were lucky enough to get the last two places.

The audio recording provided interesting  facts about the Dutch capital. In the 12th century, the dam in the River Amstel emerged from being a small fishing village into a hugely important port. The 17th century was known as the Dutch Golden Age which saw the growth of commerce and the diamond trade and expansion of empire. Amsterdam’s 17th century waterways have been awarded UNESCO World Heritage Status.

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We passed through one of the main commercial districts, the port and spotted the largest Chinese restaurant in the Netherlands. This area reminded me of Stockholm.

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It was a warm sunny day and Amsterdam was buzzing as we wound our way around the Amstel.  As I listened to the audio guide and learned some fascinating facts about the city, I found myself relaxing into my surroundings and forgetting about the time.

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We passed through the Jewish cultural district famous for diamond and jewellery manufacturing. Some people left us there for a tour of the Gassan factory to see how diamonds are cut. I would like to explore this part of Amsterdam in the future.

Past City Hall and the magnificent Hermitage Museum, we arrived at an intersection with  the Prinsengracht Canal where we encountered a boat rage incident. Not surprisingly on such a glorious day, many people were enjoying being on the water and a women’s boat race was in full swing. Several vessels  -including ours – had become jammed at a bottle-neck bridge.

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The determined women rowers were not for backing up and were quite vocal in their refusal, oars being postured to reinforce their words. I don’t know any Dutch, but locals looking down from the bridge were highly amused at the altercation. The women had to retreat in the end, but speedily sailed away towards their prize, their nearest competitors hot in pursuit.

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A boat turned into a museum dedicated to cheese

House boats are so popular in Amsterdam that the authorities have put a stop to any new ones. Mooring charges are high and berths don’t often come available. Residents soaked up the rays outside their floating homes and along the banks where office workers and tourists alike were taking a break and enjoying the ambience.

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At the Westkerk (west church) we decided to leave the boat and have a look around this central part of the city. The Church was closed, unfortunately.

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The world famous Anne Frank House Museum is nearby. It goes without saying that a visit was out of the question on this occasion as queues can be very long and tickets should be bought in advance to avoid a lengthy wait.

We crossed over the Bloemgracht Canal. There are about 250 bridges in Amsterdam, many of them very pretty and reminiscent of Paris.

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The bustling Jordaan area has quirky shops and cool apartment buildings and is a charming mix of old and new. I was very tempted by some contemporary Delftware, but ironically I couldn’t decide between several lovely pieces and bought none of them.

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Strolling back along Raadhuisstrat we emerged in Dam Square at the centre of the city. It was packed full of people and life.

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Photo opportunities with pigeons

Sightseers milled around the royal palace; again, I was keen to explore but by this time had less than three hours before meeting the coach back to Rotterdam. Several protests and counter protests were taking place in the square but all were peaceful and calm, as is the liberal and tolerant Dutch way.

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A protest in movement about human rights in China

The Nieuwe Kerk (new church) was on my list of places to see but it was hosting an exhibition about the Buddha, which although probably fascinating, would have eaten too much into our remaining time. The rest of this gorgeous building had been closed off. Next time…

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Damrak is the main shopping street and it was thriving. All the usual multinational eateries were mixed with museums and exhibition spaces. Many of the buildings are three hundred years old.

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I was fascinated by the Amsterdam Cheese Company store  with its huge cheeses on display in the upstairs windows.

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At the end of Damrak, with Central Station in view, stand some of the loveliest houses in the whole of the city, centuries old and full of character.

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Behind these is the red light district and infamous coffee shops. Amsterdam is synonymous with licentiousness and hedonism, but what really surprised me was that it is not ‘in your face’. If visitors want to ogle ladies in windows or enjoy space cakes with their special coffees, it’s all easily available – but you have to look for it. Side streets offer hints to what lies further ahead, but that is a choice, and nobody has to walk that way, and won’t find themselves there by accident.

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I didn’t enter the labyrinth of the senses this time, but would do if time permitted, as the red light district is reputed to include some very handsome buildings.

A little more exploring and it was time to head back to Rotterdam with just an hour to spare before we set sail. Once again, relatively calm waters conveyed us back to Hull where we arrived at 08:00.

What a weekend! What a revelation Amsterdam has been! It was the briefest of visits, and I only got a glance, not a look, at a fascinating city. I will go back, but even though I do seem to have sea legs after all (albeit somewhat wobbly ones) and I can sleep through the night without watching for the sea seeping into the cabin, I’ll stick to the big metal bird next time around.

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Malmo, Sweden – The Bridge and beyond

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Wednesday brought with it sunshine and blue sky. We were going to Sweden.

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At 7, 845 metres, the Oresund Bridge, which opened in 2000, is the longest combined rail and road bridge in Europe and connects Copenhagen with the Swedish city of Malmö. The first leg of the journey takes passengers under the Baltic sea through the Drogden tunnel, which is 4000 metres long and stretches from the coast of the Danish island, Amager (Kastrup Airport is located there), to the artificially constructed island, Peberholm, in the middle of the Oresund strait where the bridge then appears to rise out of the water. This design ingenuity leaves an unobstructed shipping channel through the strait above the submerged tunnel. You can probably tell that I am interested in great feats of engineering, however that is not my main fascination with Oresundbron. I am a massive fan of the collaborative Swedish/Danish crime drama, The Bridge.

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In the series, The Bridge has been the scene of a gruesome crime and some edge-of-the-seat action, so it came as no disappointment to me when our train drew to a standstill in Denmark for about 20 minutes due to Swedish police working on their side. We weren’t told the reason, but I pictured fictional detective Saga Noren taking charge of the action! Swedish police later boarded our train for a routine ID check; such checks don’t commonly happen anymore, but passengers should always have their passports to hand.

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I instantly liked Malmö. It was spacious and largely pedestrianised, which scores lots of points from me. Nordic dramas are deliberately filmed in the autumn and winter (apparently) to create that dark edginess that adds to the ‘Noir’. Under an April blue sky and with sunlight pouring through, the city looked joyful. The sound of sea birds above was a welcome reminder that I was on holiday and it was actually spring; a beautiful and very stark contrast to the snow and rain of Copenhagen on the previous day (Copenhagen Day 2 ).

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A boat trip would have been lovely, but we just missed out, as the summer programme doesn’t start until 13th April. The canals looked inviting (for a walk, not a dip!) but as time was of the essence a short walk brought us to Gamla Staden, the mediaeval part of the city.

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We paused for a look around the spacious cobbled Stor Torget (big square) where the town hall is located, before moving on to my favourite part of Malmö, Lilla Torget (little square).

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Here, the centuries old buildings are painted in shades of ochre and burnt sienna and attractively uneven in construction. All have modern functions: small hotels, restaurants and bars, arts and crafts studios and shops. The place is charming, and we could happily have sat for hours watching folk tread the cobbles (comfy shoes with thick soles are advised!), so we decided to return later to enjoy an al-fresco evening meal.

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We walked around the city, which was very different to what I had expected. Of course, being Sweden everywhere was – as in Denmark – clean and tidy. There was an eclectic mix of mediaeval and modern, chain store and independent, throughout the city, enhanced by some quirky art.

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We had already selected our lunch venue, Kao’s vegan restaurant, which was about 20 minutes away on Foreningsgatan in an ethnically diverse part of the city. It was a pleasant walk along a busy road which offered another waterside view.

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Our tasty and plentiful lunch consisted of a sort of egg-free filled pancake and heaps of different mixed salads. Kao’s was quite boho, but obviously had a wider appeal, as two long tables were occupied by suited and booted business men having what seemed like a working lunch.

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Handsomely fed and watered, we wandered across the road to look at a rather ornate synagogue and neighbouring church.

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It was time to walk off our lunch and visit some of the city’s green spaces on such a fine day. By this time, I was so warm that I had to take off my coat. We walked for about 20 minutes to Kung’sparken (The King’s park), which is said to be one of the oldest public parks in Europe.

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It was a pleasure to sit in the sun and look at the wildlife, though I was angered to see a couple of idiotic teenagers trying to goad a duck into chasing them so that some girls could catch the action on camera (one of the minuses of social media). This went on for a few minutes with the ducks clearly not interested and moving away only to be followed by dumb and dumber. A few adults were nearby, but nobody said a word. I started to walk in their direction, but their young female audience had got bored with their antics by that time, so the boys gave up.

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We found a lovely windmill with a garden partially enclosed by hedge borders. People were sunbathing, which is incredible considering it had been snowing the day before!

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We continued to the other side of the park, passing the Malmohus, the former Malmö Castle which is now an art gallery.

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Across from the Malmohus is the Kommendanthuset. Built in 1786, it housed the Malmö Castle arsenal and was later a prison. It’s now an airy gallery space and ecological café, so in we went for cold drinks and a chat with the friendly lady who ran it. She had formerly lived in London, and still comes to the UK every year to visit a friend in Edinburgh. We had an interesting conversation about Viking invaders and the influence of Scandinavian languages on the cadence of the Scottish accent and its lexicon.

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We decided to walk to Ribersborgsstranden – the beach – from where it was possible to get an excellent view of the Oresund Bridge. After getting lost within a housing estate (a not uncommon occurrence on my holidays) – Google maps are NOT always correct – we decided not to head all the way to the beach but went as far as a grassy coastal walkway from where we could still see the awesome structure in the distance.

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Relaxing and enjoying a meal was next on the itinerary, so we headed once again to the lovely Lilla Torg. We were astonished to note how busy the square had become compared with mid-morning; meeting friends after work was obviously as popular here as it is in the capital, Stockholm which I visited in 2016   . We eventually found a table at one of the restaurants and enjoyed our tasty and generously proportioned (and very expensive!) tortillas before casting a last admiring look over our favourite part of Malmö.

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The service between the two cities is frequent, so back at the station we didn’t have long to wait for our train to Copenhagen. The sun was going down as we got back to Hotel Sct Thomas looking forward to day 4, our last in Copenhagen.

 

Copenhagen – In search of even more Nordic Noir

Copenhagen Day 2

Rested and refreshed I opened the curtains of my hotel room on Tuesday morning to a most unwelcome view: snow!

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It swirled around the evergreens in the hotel garden in mocking motion as if to say, “So you thought you’d have a pleasant spring break, eh?” Of course, I understood this perfectly, as although it was Danish snow, it communicated in excellent English.

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My friend Julie and I ventured out onto Frederiksberg Alle in fine spirits. They were soon dampened. The snow had turned into a minor blizzard and the accompanying wind blew our feeble umbrellas inside out. The dark sky promised a gloomy day ahead.

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You really can’t beat a hop-on/hop-off bus tour to get an overview of an unfamiliar city, especially when your stay there is a short one. Plug in the ear phones, listen to the usually interesting and informative commentary and decide which spots you want to go back to later in the day. The snow storm outside obscured the view somewhat, but it was exciting to see some of the land marks I felt familiar with from my favourite Scandi dramas. I was secretly disappointed not to spot any Birk-Larsen transportation vehicles pass alongside us, but deep down I knew they weren’t real….though apparently items of uniform for the fictional company can be purchased online!

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We wound our way through Christianshavn and past Christiansborg Palace or ‘Borgen’, the Danish parliament building. Next, vivid and colourful Nyhavn came into view.

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Nyhavn is the most famous Copenhagen postcard picture, bright and lively and a most welcome contrast to the dreary sleet. We would be back there later, but for now we continued east alongside the city’s waterfront and past the Gefion Fountain.

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Sculpted by Anders Bundgaard in 1908, it depicts the story of the goddess Gefjon who turned her four sons into oxen. The Swedish king, Gylfi, had promised Gefjon that she could keep all the land that she could plough in one night, so she set her burly bovine offspring to work resulting in the creation of Zealand, the island on which Copenhagen sits. Our friendly tour bus driver obligingly stopped for us to take photographs, so we braved the flurry. Of course, the fountain was not in operation, but I imagined that on a warm day this waterfront land mark would look very pleasing.

Our next stop off was the famous Little Mermaid statue, another celebrated Copenhagen land mark. Here we parked up for a little while to see the lady perched on the rock. Normally, there is a crowd around the sculpture and it can be difficult to get a good view, but on this bitterly cold morning we were the only people around. My fingers had just about defrosted enough to operate the camera. As I wrote in  Copenhagen Day 1, the Little Mermaid has been subjected to numerous acts of vandalism over the years, ranging from the graffiti you see below through to decapitation on two occasions. Graffiti is widespread in Copenhagen, the only blot on an otherwise pristine cityscape, but some of the messages sprayed onto the Little Mermaid have been of a political nature, suggesting that some citizens are more concerned with harsh modern realities than centuries old fairy tales.

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Passing around the grand structure of Rosenberg Castle and the nearby Botanical Gardens, we decided that they too would be revisited later in the day. The weather improved as we headed back through the city. By the time we disembarked we had only light but persistent rain to contend with, though the snow had by then turned into that annoying dirty slush that leaves shoes and hems sodden. No matter – we were on holiday!

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Next on the agenda was a boat trip along Copenhagen’s canals and harbour. The stone steps from beside the Holmen Church down to the blue Netto Boat were slippery, but once inside it was surprisingly warm.

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I would have preferred to sit in one of the seats on deck behind the captain and his first mate, our tour guide, but shallow pools had formed on the seats and the rain was still falling. From time to time I and other tourists ventured out to take photos, but rain drops on the camera lens made this tricky. The guide was very entertaining and shared moments of sardonic wit and ironic reflections as we sailed through Nyhavn, Christianhavn and on through the harbour, passing the Little Mermaid once again.

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Once off the boat it was time to walk and find our lunch destination. I had a brief look around the courtyard of Christiansborg Palace (Copenhagen Day 1) and was excited to see that it was possible to have a free tour of the interior. In fact, quite a crowd of sightseers was flocking inside, cameras poised, to do just that. I made a mental note that I would return on Thursday to hopefully catch a glimpse of the state rooms where fictional Prime Minister Birgitte Nyborg held her top level meetings in Borgen (yes – they did film there!).

After a tasty lunch at Yellow Rose vegan café on Peder Hvitfeldts Stræde, and a walk through some of the main shopping streets it was time to stroll along the canal through picturesque Nyhavn. Mercifully, the rain had finally stopped, and we were able to enjoy the atmosphere of the former fishermen’s favourite and 18th and 19th century red light district. Nyhavn is very popular with tourists and locals and its various restaurants serve up, unsurprisingly, a lot of seafood. Waffles are also very popular here and all over the city.

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Our next destination, the city’s Botanical Gardens, was serene and green, though a few patches of early morning snow still clung to the ground. I enjoyed the various sculptures of personalities from classical mythology that took up amusing stances in various locations. The climate inside the hot house was overwhelming after the outside chill, and it was almost impossible to take any decent photographs, as the camera lens would steam up instantly.

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Next, we had hoped to take a tour of historic Rosenberg Castle which was close by and is the repository of the Danish crown jewels. I had been looking forward to seeing the splendour within this 17th century former residence of Danish royalty, but unfortunately it does not open to the public on Tuesdays.DSCF5031

 

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We were still able to walk through the King’s Garden and see the outside where some Danish soldiers appeared to be doing something or other. Signs along the perimeter fence forbade cameras and drones, though nobody seemed to be paying any attention. I didn’t have my drone with me, but like everybody else I disobeyed the warning sign and took a few snaps. Rather than challenging this, some of the soldiers seemed to be enjoying the attention and even posing.

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We ambled for a couple of hours, enjoying the city and stopping for a leisurely coffee, before heading back, agreeably tired and still damp around the ankles, to the welcoming warmth of Hotel Sct Thomas. A rest, a shower and some clean warm clothes, and we were out again for an excellent meal at a middle-eastern restaurant before we ended the day looking forward to a trip to Sweden.

 

 

Copenhagen – in search of Nordic Noir

 

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Three years ago, I had an accident and broke my foot in five places. I was off work for a couple of months and for the first two weeks was in a lot of pain and spent long languorous days lounging on the sofa. It was during this period of enforced inactivity that a friend lent me some box sets which introduced me to the TV genre popularly known as Nordic Noir. I was a late arrival on the Scandi scene. The Killing, into which I very quickly became utterly engrossed, had first aired almost a decade earlier. I quickly made up for lost time, watching hours on end of top notch psychological crime thrillers and political intrigue. That was the start, and my love affair with Scandi drama is still as strong.

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I visited Stockholm, Sweden, a couple of years ago and loved it! You can read about my first Scandi adventure here . This week I flew north again to Denmark’s capital, Copenhagen, where several of my favourite Nordic Noir dramas have been filmed, including The Killing, Borgen, The Bridge (the Danish scenes, anyway) and BBC4’s current and excellent Saturday night offering, Below the Surface. From there I crossed the stretch of the Baltic Sea between Denmark and Sweden by way of that impressive feat of engineering, the Oresund bridge, and on to the southern Swedish city of Malmo. It was an intensive and tiring four days (I’m getting too old for these high-speed adventures!) but I had a brilliant time, and of course will now be able to watch my Nordic Noir through different eyes, so to speak.

Copenhagen day 1

Arriving on Monday, my friend and I opted for the speed and convenience of a taxi from Kastrup airport over the cheaper option of the very reliable and regular train service because we just wanted to get to the hotel and get settled in. The day was dull and overcast and rain was threatening, and we wanted to have a look around the locality in what daylight remained. Knowing full well what the answer would be, I asked the driver if he spoke English; of course he did! Every person in Denmark does, and usually to a high standard.

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Our residence for the next few days, Hotel Sct (Saint) Thomas, is situated on Frederiksberg Alle, to the west of the city in the Vesterbro area. The staff were lovely and helpful, and I’d be happy to recommend the place to anybody planning to stay in Copenhagen. We had decided to use public transport as little as possible to see more of the city; in my experience, it’s the wandering around, even when lost and frustrated at times, which leads to the discovery of so many interesting places that you would never find on the map. The walk from the Hotel to the centre of Copenhagen took about 15 minutes (a little bit longer in the evening when dragging back exhausted limbs and hauling the day’s purchases) along a vibrant street filled with shops, places to eat and a few bars. Don’t be deceived by the grey skies in these photos!

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Flying Tiger is a budget chain store. The branch in our neighbourhood had these colourful full-wall displays in its entrance area.

 

 

 

 

Copenhageners are cyclists. The city authorities encourage and facilitate this green and healthy form of transportation, and only Amsterdam rivals the prevalence of bicycles. According to one of our tour guides (you’ll meet him on day 2!) there are five bikes to every four citizens, a fact which I found wheely interesting (Sorry!). Looking around the city there were bikes everywhere. Cycle lanes ran alongside all main roads and were, overall, properly used. Cycle manufacturing is big business, and many models are out there including several different designs specifically for the transportation of children.

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Staff bicycles parked outside Christiansborg Palace (colloquially known as ‘Borgen’ ). It’s great to see the country’s MPs setting an example.

Danish cyclists are much more tolerant than their German counterparts and are patient with foreign visitors like us who would inadvertently wander into their reserved part of the walkway; try that in Berlin and you could consider yourself lucky to hear the polite tinkle of a bell to warn you that collision was imminent if you didn’t move out of the way – more often, the friendly tinkle would be replaced by some yelled or hissed utterance, the translation of which could safely be assumed across all languages. Traffic lights are also obeyed almost all of the time. Drivers do stop at red lights, but some trail slowly but menacingly on the heels of the last person to cross the road in their eagerness to turn corners, even if the lights are still on red. This is a thousand times better than in France, where traffic lights count for absolutely nothing, but falls way short of what we are used to in the UK.

Another very noticeable difference on the streets of Copenhagen was the lack of litter and the general tidiness. In four days I counted one juice container tossed onto the forecourt of what I think was a church and one empty beer can in an alleyway. I didn’t notice an army of street cleaners on patrol day or night, so I assume that the citizens are generally a respectful bunch who take pride in their city. I cringe when I think how many of our UK towns and cities must appear in comparison. Graffiti, however, is another matter, and it can be found all over the place, including, sadly, sprayed onto the iconic statue of the Little Mermaid (day 2). Graffiti seems to be tolerated to a greater degree in some European cities, including Copenhagen, than in the UK, and some of it was pretty good. Mess or art? Does it depend who has created it – and why?

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Restaurants are expensive in Scandinavia, though service is good. We looked at a few possibilities and tired and still finding our feet in a new place we opted for Italian. I had made an extensive list of veggie/vegan eateries in both Copenhagen and Malmo, and tomorrow was another day. Back at Hotel Sct Thomas, comfy beds beckoned and the promise of adventures to follow in the morning…

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Day 2: https://amandaragaa.com/2018/04/07/copenhagen-in-search-of-even-more-nordic-noir/

 

 

Pere Lachaise Cemetery – stories of Paris Past

A cemetery may seem a strange choice as a tourist attraction, but Per Lachaise is no ordinary city graveyard.This sprawling Paris necropolis has turned remembrance into art………HITACHI HDC-1491E

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Paris’s largest and most celebrated cemetery first opened its elegant gates in 1804. After getting off to a slow start (it was considered by many to be too far outside of the centre of Paris) it became within two decades the most desirable residence for the city’s fashionable deceased. The rise in popularity was due in no small part to a deliberate if somewhat macabre promotional strategy thought up by the administrators in charge of the site which involved transferring the remains of several notable citizens from their original places of interment to new plots within Per Lachaise.

The cemetery takes its name from Pere (Father) Francoise de La Chaise, the priest who took confession from King Louis XIV. Pere de La Chaise belonged to a Jesuit order which in the late 17th century lived on the site of the current cemetery. A former chapel now serving as the cemetery office stands near to the main entrance on the spot of the former Jesuit residence. Visitors can call in for a map which shows the tombs of the famed of Paris.

Not all of the graves in this cemetery are grand or eccentric; many simple headstones soberly and humbly mark the final resting places of ordinary Parisians.

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There is an eclectic mix of architectural styles, my own particular favourite being the tiny house-like structures which often contain a single chair for quiet moments of sitting and remembering.

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Inside one of the tombs; the single chair is just out of shot. What a beautiful place!

The cemetery, like the city, is divided into arrondissements, or zones. The more modern sections are at the back near to the crematorium, an impressive Byzantine-like building with a multi-level columbarium where remains are housed in niches within the walls. Some are quirky and beautifully crafted, probably reflecting the personalities of those whose remains repose there. The columbarium structure has the appearance of an art installation.

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This gorgeously glazed memorial preserves the memory of Maurice and Jacqueline
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Max Ernst, German sculptor and surrealist painter
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What a happy couple Gisele and Gilbert look
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The smile of a beautiful young woman is captured for eternity
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I became fascinated by Leilah Mahi, a French-Lebanese writer. Unfortunately, there is very little information available, and I haven’t been able to find any English translations of her work.

Near to the rear entrance of Per Lachaise is a beautiful memorial erected to the memory of the 228 victims of Air France Flight 447, which fell out of the sky whilst flying from Rio de Janeiro to Paris in 2009. The clear Perspex structure shows 228 birds in flight, one to represent each passenger, which I think is quite lovely.

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Over 3.5 million visitors pass through the gates each year and many of them come to pay tribute to Jim Morrison, icon, legend and front man of 1960s rock band, The Doors. Morrison died in Paris in 1971, aged just 27 years, an official cause of death never recorded, though speculation at the time was rife, and still is. Jim Morrison was not only a talented musician but also a poet and film maker. In the 1970s and ’80s, the grave took on a shrine-line status. Fans would gather and leave mementos and lines of poetry expressing their admiration. Another tradition which sprang up was that of leaving chewing gum on a nearby tree; this still continues. I didn’t feel inspired to contribute, though many others did.

My last visit to Per Lachaise was in October 2014 and metal railings had already been erected around the grave, though they presented no obstacle at all to the agile youth and youthful in spirit who wanted to place their flowers and trinkets at the grave. More recently the free and easy behaviour of some fans has come to be considered by the cemetery authorities to be a nuisance and disrespectful, and there have even been suggestions that Jim’s remains be relocated to his country of birth, the USA.

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The Jim Morrison gum tree.

 

In my thirties I became very interested in French literature of the late 19th and early 20th century. I must add that I read these great works in English translation, as my high school French could just about stretch to ordering a coffee and a baguette. I lost myself in the novels of Andre Bretton, Joris-Karl Huysmans and Violette Leduc to name a few, and out of this emerged a great interest in Paris. One much revered author who I never really took to was Marcel Proust. I acknowledge his talent, and the famous ‘madeleine moment’ analogy really struck a chord with me as with many; I persevered with the first volume of In Search of Lost Time, but could continue no further. The legendary writer is laid to rest in Pere Lachaise.

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Oscar Wilde, Irish poet and novelist, died in Paris in 1900 (see my blog about this). He left England in disgrace after release from a prison sentence for gross indecency. Wilde was married and a father of two children but had been involved in relationships with several men, most notably Lord Alfred Douglas whose father, the Marquis of Queensbury, was instrumental in bringing about Wilde’s fall from grace.

It is tradition to leave a token of appreciation in the form of a kiss. Visitors should put on their brightest lipstick and pucker up to the sphinx. It’s not possible to get near to the sandstone any more as it is surrounded by a Perspex barrier at the request of Wilde’s descendants who are required to foot the bill for keeping the grave in good repair. The smooching continues on the Perspex and I couldn’t leave Per Lachaise without adding my own mark of respect.

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Lipstick marks left by Oscar Wilde admirers

Pere Lachaise Cemetery, Paris – Taking a walk on the Wilde side

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The inspiration for this blog has once again come from a meeting of the book group which I have belonged to for about four years. We have read all sorts of titles from the obscure to the latest Booker Prize winners. Almost all have been novels, though recently there has been some deviation: October/November brought us George Orwell’s social commentary The Road to Wigan Pier (see my blog about this), and the penultimate 2017 selection was a play by Oscar Wilde, Lady Windermere’s Fan. It’s only short and highly amusing and we considered allocating parts and reading it together – in character – but decided we had too many other things to talk about as well, such as our favourite Christmas tree baubles, cats and the National Health Service.

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Oscar Wilde is one of the great names of Anglo-Irish literature. In the last decade of the 19th century he wrote poetry; several plays – notably comedies – including Lady Windermere’s Fan and his most famous, The Importance of Being Earnest; he also wrote many short stories and is the author of the famous novel, The Picture of Dorien Gray.

In as much as he was famous for his contributions to literature, Wilde was also surrounded by controversy relating to his sexuality. Married, and a father of two sons, Oscar Wilde also had sexual relationships with men, most notably Lord Alfred Douglas. His lover’s influential father accused Wilde, in writing, of being homosexual, and Wilde contested this at a time when to be a gay man was illegal and when the appearance of conventional respectability was everything. Wilde lost the libel trial which backfired horribly, causing his private life to be exposed and landing him in prison charged with gross indecency. After his release the disgraced Oscar Wilde removed himself to Paris where he lived and eventually died on 30th November 1900.

I have twice visited Pere Lachaise, the Paris cemetery where Oscar Wilde is buried. My last visit there was in 2014. I’ll add at this point that I don’t have a particular interest in cemeteries and don’t go out of my way to visit them. I prefer to explore a metropolis, not a necropolis, however, my friend and fellow traveller is a big ‘Doors’ fan and Pere Lachaise also happens to be the final resting place of lead singer, Jim Morrison. She insisted on paying her respects to Jim and thus ensued a most interesting excursion around that architectural gem in the heart of the French capital.

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Pere Lachaise is the biggest and most famous cemetery in Paris. If one feels inclined to explore every inch of the grounds it would probably take up half a day. Burials still take place, but spaces are limited and in great demand. The crematorium is also located there and many choose to have their ashes interred in the elegant and artistic columbarium.

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The tombs of ordinary Parisians lie alongside those of many notable people and an information leaflet with map has been produced to help visitors navigate the terrain and find the tombs of interest. With 3.5 million visitors per year it is the most visited cemetery in the world. It goes without saying that one of the most visited graves is that of Oscar Wilde.

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Like the man, the grave is elaborate and flamboyant and at the time of its construction was similarly controversial due to the perceived sexualisation of its design. It has been both vandalised and restored over the years.  It cost £2000 and was designed by sculptor Jacob Epstein who was greatly interested in Indian and Egyptian sensual art; this, along with inspiration from Wilde’s poem The Sphinx is said to have resulted in the most unusual memorial. Interestingly, it was created in London and the stone was from Cheshire. The epitaph on the grave is taken from The Ballad of Reading Gaol, written whilst Wilde was incarcerated there:

And alien tears will fill for him

Pity’s long-broken urn,

For his mourners will be outcast men,

And outcasts always mourn.

There is a long-standing tradition of applying some bright lipstick (if you’re not wearing some already!) and planting a kiss on Oscar Wilde’s grave. This was met with disapproval by the cemetery authorities and Oscar Wilde’s descendants and in 2011 a protective barrier was assembled around the monument to prevent further smooching. Many visitors, not all outcasts and not all men, still kiss the Perspex. I did, of course, add to the collection of lip prints! Although it may appear as if the sky is strangely blue in this part of the cemetery alone, the real reason is that the photo below was taken during a spring time visit where the others were taken in grey October.

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Pere Lachaise has a lot of stories to tell. More photos and tales of the famous departed will follow soon, so watch this space.

 

Stockholm: fairy tales and other stories

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Once upon a time in a land far away…………….. an opening line recognised by all and fondly remembered by me from the fairy tales of my childhood. As soon as I could read independently I immersed myself in a magical world of make believe: fantastical characters, mysterious places and incredible adventures. I can still remember the illustrations of castles, creatures and supernatural objects that helped bring those stories to life. Of course, I had no awareness at the time of the origins of those stories and their etymologies and rich folk traditions. I was aware though, that the buildings I saw in my books were not only from other times but also from other places, unlike any old buildings I had seen in England. I decided that one day I wanted to visit somewhere like the places in my childhood books.

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In recent years I have been gripped by another kind of Scandinavian story. Like millions of others in the UK and around the world I have become an avid fan of that modern genre of film and book known as Nordic Noir. The Bridge, Wallander, Borgen and, of course, The Killing, (to name a few) have hooked me (despite the need to become a very fast reader of subtitles) in a way that no British TV offerings have come close to. This interest in all things ‘Scandi’ has been another factor in my decision to visit Sweden.

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The islands of Stockholm are connected by bridges. The Baltic sea is spanned by large and sturdy constructions  like the one above, but some much smaller and ornate.

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The city is an archipelago in the Baltic Sea made up of 14 islands connected by bridges. Some of the islands are actually very small and it has to be said that I didn’t often have a sense of island-hopping as I made my way around the Stockholm. This came as a surprise as I had imagined mini versions of the Oresund Bridge carrying me over wider expanses of water with each island distinct from the next; although some of the main islands are quite unique. This beautiful Baltic Sea harbour with its promenade of tall, grand, brightly coloured houses offers tantalising views beyond, and the promise of distant cold northern lands where the Aurora Borealis lights up the night sky. In other words – a fairy tale picture realised.

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Langholmen was formerly a prison island, but is now a gorgeous lush island of trees, including some exotic species which have been planted as part of an ecological preservation initiative. Stockholm’s residents flock here at weekends and during the warmer months to enjoy the greenery and picnics on the beaches.

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Djurgården is known as the eco-island, home to the theme park, Grunlund, the city zoo and a number of museums including the Biological Science Museum, the Nordik Museum and the Abba Museum, which is popular with tourists. I spent a couple of hours walking through the parks and around the lake, taking in the glorious effects of autumn on the leaves. This region, the centre of fun and leisure activities during the summer months, looked slightly eerie on an October day when people were sparse and the fairground rides stood at a standstill waiting for the spring.

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Stockholm is serious about museums; it seems like there is one dedicated to the celebration of most things. On the island of Skeppsholmen at the entrance to the Baltic Sea can be found museums of architecture and modern art and one of the port’s best known features, the sailing ship Af Chapman, now in use as a youth hostel.

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Kungsholmen (King’s Island) is in the middle of Lake Malaren and was once home to a mediaeval monastery whose property and lands were confiscated by the crown in the 1500s. It is now one of the most desirable residential areas of the city.

One of the best known and interesting parts of Stockholm is Gamla Stan, The Old Town. It is here that visitors will see some marvellous examples of quaint mediaeval buildings, cobbled streets and crooked houses in an array of colours. Dark winding passage ways lead to who knows where. Some of the shops were in darkness and others looked as if they could be portals to a magical world. The melodic chime of the church bells and old-fashioned lamps casting an ethereal glow over the cobble stones perfectly complete the scene .

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The city boasts an impressive array of restaurants, cafes and coffee shops. On its main shopping street, Drottninggatan, about one establishment out of every four offers food and drink. The standard is excellent, though restaurant prices are very high: two courses and one soft drink or beer cost on average between 300 and 450 Swedish Krona per person (approximately £35 to £45).

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The upper end of Drottninggatan, Stockholm’s main shopping street

Cafes and brasseries are not as expensive. Some of the best food of my trip was enjoyed at two vegetarian self-serve buffets. Prices were very reasonable (approx. £12 and £13 per person respectively) and the food was tasty, fresh, adventurous and wholesome.

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The Hermitage can be found in the mediaeval Gamla Stan (old town) and the excellent Hermann’s is on the island of Sodermalm. Largely residential, Sodermalm has an arty alternative feel and is the main location in Stieg Larson’s ‘Girl….’ trilogy of novels. Tours around the island are available, taking in the fictional hangouts of Lisbeth Salander. I did consider joining the tour but was too-sloth like after feasting at Hermann’s.

Halloween is a big thing in Sweden and preparations for the festivities were apparent everywhere. Pumpkin lanterns and spooky window dressings were everywhere, a welcome contrast to the late afternoon greyness. In the UK we are all familiar with Ikea and the interest in Swedish design. It has been suggested that the use of colour, originality and quirky features are an aspect of expression sparked by the vibrant heart at the centre of the bleak, grey landscape which dominates northern Europe for many months of the year.

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A window in Gamla Stan

Swedes have style! Walk along any residential street in the city and take a sneaky peek through the window – not easy to avoid when few homes have curtains or blinds of any kind.

The Swedish informal greeting, ‘Hey’, is as much about intonation and pitch – and not to mention facial expression – as the word itself……..and this requires some practice. I think I’d cracked it by the last day when it was time to say goodbye. Needless to say, everybody in Sweden speaks good English in any case.

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