Posting from home: a cat from Montmartre

Here in the UK we are into week 5 of lock down. People are responding to the situation in different ways. Some are coping well and are adjusting to a slower and simpler temporary life; others are struggling with confinement and  uncertainty about when things will change. I’m naturally a homebody and enjoy my own company, so thankfully I’m doing OK; though I am starting to lose track of what day it is and doubt I am alone in that. Sadly, there are no rural amblings to be had close to my home so I can’t show you any verdant spring scenes. I’m sure I’ll be itching to get out when restrictions are lifted, but as that could be some time off I thought I’d write a little retro travel post without having to leave the house.

Though not intentionally or philosophically a minimalist, I appear to own less stuff than most people I know and I tend only to have things that I actually use or am really fond of. In the second category is Montmarte Cat who sits on a shelf in the kitchen. I bought this ceramic feline about five years ago from my favourite part of Paris.

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Montmartre is well known as the artists’ quarter of the French capital, a bustling and lively place with lots of winding cobbled streets, cafes, artists and little studios. Montmartre is actually the name of the hill but it incorporates the district which has grown up around it.

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Walking around admiring street artists’ work is to be taken much more seriously than here in England. Stand too long in admiration and it’s assumed you have entered into an unspoken commercial contract to purchase the watercolour you have been ogling for the last seven minutes, or to pose for the portrait painter whom you have naively made eye contact with. Once those bristles hit that canvas there’s only one honourable outcome unless you want to make your escape, chastened and shamed, as the offended artist shouts insults after you. Just keep moving unless you want to buy, and enjoy the wonderful energy of the village.

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Moulin Rouge is a just a short walk away but I haven’t been tempted. One of my two favourite views of the city can be savoured from the Basilica of Sacre Coeur which sits atop Montmartre (the other favourite view, perhaps unsurprisingly, being from the top of the Eiffel Tower).

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Each time I have visited has been a warm and bright day, perfect for buying a freshly made baguette and walking up the steps of Sacre Coeur to sit and enjoy the sprawling metropolis below.

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Of course, there are the usual hawkers and pick-pockets and opportunists who can spot tourists a mile off; it’s a slice of life. There are also souvenir shops selling tat to those of us who can’t resist – my personal weakness is fridge magnets. Bill Bryson once admitted to the same (tat, not especially fridge magnets) so there’s no shame in it. Excellent coffee or a green fairy will soon have you feeling more sophisticated again.

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On my last visit five years ago I came across this gorgeous little ceramics studio.

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The items on display outside were, understandably, glued in place but I was still impressed that they remained intact. I knew I was going to buy something…

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Not the handrail, though it was exquisitely painted.

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Inside the tiny gallery there was a collection of cats in white and a rich olive green, singular and paired, reclining, sleeping, stretching, serious or smiling. One looked very pleased with himself, contented and lazy as cats should be, and as he has been since, on my kitchen shelf.

Keep smiling too! Planes will once again fly, ships will sail and adventures are awaiting.

Visiting The Berlin Wall, a retrospective

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Yesterday was the 30th anniversary of the opening up of the Berlin wall. In the days that followed, euphoric, defiant Berliners – some with their bare hands – tore down sections of the ominous structure which had dissected their city for 28 years. Constructed almost overnight in 1961, the wall had split Berlin in two, dividing families and friends, not just into two halves of the city but into two countries, and two very different worlds.

I remember watching the scenes on the news back in November 1989, witnessing the droves of East Berliners heading through the city check points into West Berlin and out of the Soviet Union.

The world of political intrigue, spies and conspiracy theories has always captured my imagination, inside the pages of novels and on the screen. One of my favourite authors is John Le Carre, and the brilliant ‘The Spy who Came in from the cold’ is one of his best. Set in Berlin in the 1960s, the story of espionage has at its centre the sinister and ever-looming presence of the wall.

In October 2015 I visited Berlin to finally see the wall for myself.  From the U-bahn station right outside our hotel in the vibrant and Bohemian Friedrichshain area it was just a 10 minute ride to  AlexanderPlatz in the centre of the city.

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The Berlin Radio Tower dominated from above, another dark reminder of Soviet control.  From there we walked to the East Side Gallery as the last remnant of the wall is now known.

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The Gallery is 1,316-long and a heritage-protected landmark which attracts millions of visitors each year. It consists of over 100 paintings by internationally renowned artists. Most of the works are poignant, some hard-hitting, on themes of freedom and oppression. Below are just a few.

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Over the years, ordinary Berliners have made their own marks through the addition of graffiti. Some of the damaged art was been restored, but not all. It was easy to lose perspective as we admired and took photographs of why this structure was erected and what it represented for so many people for so many years.

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There is graffiti all over Berlin

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and some interesting street art too

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The Brandenburg Gate was built in the 18th century on the land of the Electors of Brandenburg, near to their traditional hunting ground, the Tiergarten. When the wall fell in November 1989, Berliners from east and west of the city converged on both sides of the wall at the site of Brandenburg Tor (gate), united in their determination to break down the barrier that separated them. It was spine-tingling to be standing there myself. Of course, the area looked so very different in 2015.

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Checkpoint Charlie, the American Army border crossing, is now iconic, and a museum piece. The place where many lost their lives, shot down as they attempted to defect to the west, looked slightly surreal in the middle of what had become a thriving shopping street.

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Throughout the 1990s and the beginning of 21C, Berlin has reinvented itself as a beacon for culture, freedom and liberty whilst cherishing and rebuilding its great heritage. I have read that there are mutterings about finally removing that last section of what many in Germany feel should now be assigned to history. I completely understand that. I’m just glad I had the chance to see it.

 

 

Bruges in six hours

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A European city break has become something of an October tradition for me. For the past six or seven years I have looked forward to a few days on the continent, but this year,  and last,  I tried something a bit different, choosing to sail rather than fly, and spending just a day at my destination. Last week I set off on a three day round trip to the lovely Belgian city of Bruges.

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We departed from the port of Hull at 6:30pm on Tuesday for an overnight sail to Zeebrugge. The 14 hour crossing was smooth and relaxing on calm water. Having traversed the North Sea several times now, my early fears of sea-sickness or sinking have been eradicated. Basic cabins are small – sometimes VERY small – but serve their purpose for the two nights on board; other amenities on P&O ferries are excellent. My feelings about sailing have changed, and I now look forward to the voyage as part of my mini break. We docked at the Belgian port on Wednesday morning as we watched the sun rise over our continental breakfast.

From Zeebrugge it was just a 30 minute coach ride to the historic city of Bruges. Setting us down just outside the city centre, our driver gave us directions and told us what time to meet up again later in the day.

 


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Bruges is well-known for its horse-pulled carriages, a popular way for tourists to see the city. Personally, I don’t like horses being used like this when there’s so much traffic on the roads, just as a touristy gimmick. I was glad to see though that the animals I encountered seemed well cared for.

We walked through a small water park where bold evergreens contrasted with muted yellows and russets on sparse branches and passed an attractive building with paving in the style of a chess board.

 

Bruges is a small city and it’s perfectly possible for most people to be able to walk around the central areas in a day, visiting museums and stopping off at cafes and restaurants along the way; but I was with my mum, who has mobility difficulties and uses a walking aid, so we went at a slower pace and decided to get a flavour rather than try everything on the menu. One wonderful flavour which dominates in Bruges is chocolate.

 

 

 

Belgian chocolate is famous the world over. Walk around Bruges and your nose will twitch with delight at the rich aroma escaping from the abundance of artisan shops on every street. Most sell the same range of goodies whilst others offer a more bespoke and artistic selection at a higher price. Many chocolatiers had created special Halloween treats such as the skulls in the window in the photo above. Another famous Belgian confection is the sweet waffle, served with a variety of toppings including fresh cream, strawberries, chocolate sauce, hot caramel and ice cream to name a few. Waffles are cooked fresh as street food and are also on the menu in most cafes.

We continued our leisurely stroll towards the centre of the city, passing the canal where we admired the swans and watched one of the city tour boats heading under the bridge.

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Undeterred by my misgivings about the design of the tour boats, mum and I decided to view Bruges from the water, not one of my better decisions as it turned out. We made our way to one of the landing stages and paid our €10 each. Despite there being two other empty vessels waiting, we were ushered into the first, which already seemed to me to be overloaded. Mum required some help getting in, and those already seated were urged by the skipper to squash up. To our dismay, about six other people were made to get in after us, with an American lady being quite vocal about wanting to board one of the other boats instead. Her pleas fell on deaf ears. So off we sailed, packed in like sardines, low in the water and barely able to move. Photography was not easy, but I did get some shots of what was a very picturesque waterside vista.

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The crow-stepped architectural style is typical of buildings all over the city. Once a major European trading port, Bruges – or Brugge, in Flemish – has evolved since medieval times and incorporates a variety of styles as revealed as we wound our way around the bends and under the ancient low bridges. Unfortunately, our rather primitive sailing vessel was not equipped with the usual audio ports and headphones which provide an interesting accompaniment to any tour, in a range of languages; instead we relied on our skipper, unenthusiastically pointing out a few key landmarks and furnishing us with sparse details in French, Spanish, German and English, always in that order. By the time we got to the English bit, the landmark would be behind us and impossible to view when any movement would surely knock one’s neighbour into the water. Back at the landing stage our joyful skipper told us it was customary to tip the driver and stood with his hand outstretched by way of an extra visual clue. We waited for the other passengers to disembark so that mum had time to carefully step up on to the bank, and to his credit our guide did lend a hand, but then spoiled the gesture by demanding the ‘customary’ tip which I had to give in order to get past him. Other people have told me of lovely experiences on the Bruges canals, so I guess we were just unlucky, and it was the only negative of the day.

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I spotted an interesting looking door in an old wall and decided to investigate.

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We found ourselves inside a passage way which opened up into the courtyard of the Beguinge or Begijnhof. Dedicated to St Elisabeth of Hungary, this was once a church and religious community of Benedictine nuns, founded in 1245, though the present buildings date back to the 1600s only. The nuns dedicated their lives to prayer and simplicity but didn’t take vows and could leave the community at any time. Now, the church is still open and some of the buildings are part of a museum. Numerous signs indicated that visitors should be silent and not take photographs (saw that one too late) so we didn’t stick around, despite the peaceful atmosphere.

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Unfortunately, the quaint cobbles of some of Bruges’ main streets were, like the rest of the modern world, subject to construction works, which made navigation just a tad trickier, but as we slowly made our way along we enjoyed browsing in some of the specialist shop windows. Bruges is also famous for textile production going back centuries, mainly cloth and lace. This tradition is still well represented with souvenirs aplenty.

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By this time we were ready for lunch, which necessarily included waffles. Everywhere was crowded but friendly and we took some time to relax and watch the world go by. There really is something special about Europe in the autumn.

With half our allotted time remaining, we ventured on, reaching the busy market square and arguably Bruges’ best known landmark, the Belfry. I had at first been excited to learn that Wednesday was market day, and had visions of exquisite little curiosity stalls where I would be tempted to part with me euros. Unfortunately, it was a market like any other, selling the usual commodities, but there was an definite buzz around the cafes and the entrances to the interesting side streets.

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Typical selfish tourist, I was quite put out that such banal commercial activity was spoiling this ( market) square and my photo opportunities. At 83m high, the Belfry is a dominant presence in Bruges. Like so many other buildings, it was constructed in the 13th century, originally as an observation post attached to a market hall. It later served as the city treasury and municipal archives. Visitors can ascend its 366 steps to get a fabulous view of the whole of Bruges. If only I’d had time….

The hour is marked by the beautiful ringing of the Belfry’s 16th century carillon, consisting of 47 bells of which 26 are still in full working order.

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We decided on one of the attractive looking streets leading off from the market square. At first I thought we could have chosen better, as we seemed to have found ourselves on a long and modern shopping street. A few twists and turns brought us to Saint Saviour’s Cathedral, so we decided to go inside.

Brugge was the home of the old Flemish Masters, so it should not have come as a surprise that the city’s Cathedral was in some ways a gallery of religious art. We spent longer than expected admiring the rich oil paintings and intricate sculptures along with more modern interpretations of Christian expression. Below are just a few.

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We emerged from the Cathedral into the sunshine again and decided to spend our last hour-and-a-half meandering through the streets and along the canals back to the water park. We found that the views from the pavement were actually just as good as from the water, and certainly more comfortable.

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We only really scratched the surface but felt that once again we had experienced an amazing day out a long way from home.

Tulip Fields: An Impression

Dutch bulb fields have, since the time of ‘tulip mania’ in the 17th century, attracted painters from Europe and beyond, mesmerised by vistas of flowers, row after row, vibrant and tantalising, extending like floral carpets to meet the horizon.

One of my favourite examples is Tulips in Holland by French Impressionist, Claude Monet, painted in 1886.

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I am fascinated by the light and the vivid hues, and had pondered the reality and how it compared with Monet’s impressions as he set them to canvas in real time.

The Dutch tulip season is short, beginning in March and ending in May. A short visit to Holland’s southern bulb region last week presented the opportunity to feast my eyes on multitudes of magnificent blooms as Monet did on another spring day over 130 years ago.

The flat land and waterways reminded me of happy childhood holidays cruising on the Norfolk Broads with my family. They are early memories, set in time in a technicolour palette; our sensory perceptions of colour, smell, pain and sounds gradually fade as we grow older. I still remember the boldness of scarlet poppies against the parched East-Anglia fen land and vast sky. Of course, the two regions of England and Holland were once joined, back in the mists of time, so perhaps the connection is understandable.

The landscape changes from week to week as fields are harvested and return to barren soil, their glory days ended for another year.  Elsewhere, new flowers open to the sun as their moment arrives. 

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I ambled alongside one narrow canal which skirted several smaller fields. Views from the water’s edge offered a chance to see further and to form my solitary impressions.

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My impression is of a grand artistic collaboration between nature and nurture at its triumphant moment of fruition, and that I was lucky to be in the gallery to see it for myself.

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Keukenhof: A Dutch Floral Fiesta

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Two or three years ago my mum revealed that as a young woman she’d longed to visit Dutch tulip fields. She’s 77 now and although that long ago dream had never come true, she had still thought of it from time to time. Mum had never previously mentioned this ambition as she had thought it too difficult to realise. That’s not completely without foundation; tulips bloom for just a couple of months, mid-March to mid-May, so any visit would have to take place within a fairly tight window. Practically, I’m the only one of her children who could accompany mum on such an expedition, and I can only take holidays at certain times. This year the opportunity finally arose for us to visit the Netherlands during my Easter break.

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The Netherlands is famously the world’s largest exporter of flowers, and nowhere can the glory of Dutch flora be better experienced than at Keukenhof Gardens. Keukenhof is situated in Lisse in the bulb growing region of Holland to the south-west of Amsterdam. The 80 acre park was opened in 1950 as a site for growers from all over the Netherlands and elsewhere in Europe to exhibit their hybrids and help the Dutch export industry. 

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The land had formerly been a medieval hunting ground, and was used in part to provide herbs, fruit and vegetables for the kitchen of the land-owning Countess of Heinaut’s castle, hence the name Keukenhof, or ‘kitchen garden’. After the Countess’ death, the land was possessed by several very wealthy owners. Constantly expanding since the current park’s establishment,  it has become one of the largest flower gardens in Europe and attracts millions of visitors from all over the world.

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Keukenhof opens its gates to visitors for only seven or eight weeks each year, so it can be very busy. It was wonderful to see so many awe-struck flower enthusiasts soaking up the April sun and the spectacular vistas. ‘Oohs’ and ‘Aahs’, I discovered, sound the same in all of the many languages I heard as we wound our way around the botanical wonderland.

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Traditional woodland areas still displayed late flowering snowdrops and daffodils, some presented in very artistic arrangements.

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Carpets of tulips and hyacinths rolled out in glorious displays of colour and texture.

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Each year Keukenhof has a theme, and in 2019 it is Flower-Power; a ’60s retro celebration of peace and love. Various exhibitions and installations appeared throughout the park; I particulary enjoyed the inspirarational peace garden.

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Gorgeous seating area
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You can just about make out the pieces of rose quartz positioned on the rooftop to represent love.

Many lakes and water features grace the park. Some provide quieter places to sit – as far as is possible at a popular site on this scale.

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Stepping stone path across the Wilhelmina Lake
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One of several pools and fountains

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Keukenhof Gardens is roughly the size of 80 football (soccer) pitches, so a full day is needed if you want to see all of it. Of course, this necessitates stops for food and rest, all of which is catered for. There are two larger restaurant areas but these do become very busy at the obvious times. Other charming cafes offer delicious coffee and famous Dutch apple pie.

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Everywhere is accessible for prams and wheelchairs, and there are lots of places to sit and take a break whilst enjoying the carnival of flowers.

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This is just a flavour of my visit to Keukenhof; a small selection of the delights for the senses. I have returned with a selection of bulbs for my own garden which – fingers crossed – will be a reminder when they flower of a special kitchen garden that I was able to share with my mum and make a dream come true.

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I wish an enjoyable weekend to all, hopefully one that will include some beautiful flowers and sunshine.

is one of the world’s largest flower gardens. Covering an area of 80 acres it is a celebration of Dutch flora on a magnificent scale. The of the modern   is one of the world’s largest flower gardens. Covering an area of 80 acres it is a celebration of Dutch flora on a magnificent scale. The  of the modern 

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

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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.

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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