Malmo, Sweden – The Bridge and beyond

DSCF5102

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

imagesGJSHDRH2

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.

The Bridge

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.

DSCF5085

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 ).

DSCF5087

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.

DSCF5092

DSCF5095

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).

DSCF5111

DSCF5110

DSCF5108

 

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.

DSCF5117

DSCF5120

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.

DSCF5100

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.

DSCF5140

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.

DSCF5132

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

DSCF5136DSCF5134

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.

DSCF5148

DSCF5144DSCF5165DSCF5147

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.

DSCF5156DSCF5162

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!

DSCF5170

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

DSCF5185

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.

DSCF5188

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.

DSCF5195DSCF5204

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.

DSCF5216

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!

DSCF4850

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.

DSCF4853

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.

DSCF4892

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!

birk larsen vanimagesBH72K9L8imagesHOXKS6IF

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

DSCF4913

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.

DSCF4868

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.

DSCF4885DSCF4887

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!

DSCF4949

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.

DSCF4950

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.

DSCF4919

DSCF4920

DSCF4933

DSCF4934

DSCF4923

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.

DSCF4976

DSCF4971

 

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.

DSCF5013

DSCF5015

 

DSCF4997DSCF5006

 

DSCF4995

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

 

DSCF5044

DSCF5047

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.

DSCF5056DSCF5053

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

 

DSCF4912

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.

BorgenThe KillingThe Bridge

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.

DSCF5064

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!

DSCF5238

DSCF4837

DSCF4836

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.

DSCF4958

DSCF4957
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?

DSCF4887

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…

DSCF4942

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

SAMSUNG DIGIMAX 420

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.

SAMSUNG DIGIMAX 420

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.

SAMSUNG DIGIMAX 420

SAMSUNG DIGIMAX 420
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.

SAMSUNG DIGIMAX 420
This gorgeously glazed memorial preserves the memory of Maurice and Jacqueline
SAMSUNG DIGIMAX 420
Max Ernst, German sculptor and surrealist painter
SAMSUNG DIGIMAX 420
What a happy couple Gisele and Gilbert look
SAMSUNG DIGIMAX 420
The smile of a beautiful young woman is captured for eternity
SAMSUNG DIGIMAX 420
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.

SAMSUNG DIGIMAX 420

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.

SAMSUNG DIGIMAX 420

SAMSUNG DIGIMAX 420
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.

SAMSUNG DIGIMAX 420

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.

HITACHI HDC-1491E

SAMSUNG DIGIMAX 420
Lipstick marks left by Oscar Wilde admirers

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

HITACHI HDC-1491E

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.

Wilde 1Wilde 2

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.

SAMSUNG DIGIMAX 420

SAMSUNG DIGIMAX 420HITACHI HDC-1491E

SAMSUNG DIGIMAX 420

SAMSUNG DIGIMAX 420

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.

SAMSUNG DIGIMAX 420

SAMSUNG DIGIMAX 420

SAMSUNG DIGIMAX 420

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.

SAMSUNG DIGIMAX 420HITACHI HDC-1491E

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.

SAMSUNG DIGIMAX 420

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

SAMSUNG DIGIMAX 420

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.

SAMSUNG DIGIMAX 420

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.

SAMSUNG DIGIMAX 420
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.

SAMSUNG DIGIMAX 420SAMSUNG DIGIMAX 420

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.

SAMSUNG DIGIMAX 420

SAMSUNG DIGIMAX 420

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.

SAMSUNG DIGIMAX 420SAMSUNG DIGIMAX 420SAMSUNG DIGIMAX 420

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.

SAMSUNG DIGIMAX 420SAMSUNG DIGIMAX 420SAMSUNG DIGIMAX 420SAMSUNG DIGIMAX 420

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.

SAMSUNG DIGIMAX 420

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 .

SAMSUNG DIGIMAX 420

SAMSUNG DIGIMAX 420SAMSUNG DIGIMAX 420

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).

SAMSUNG DIGIMAX 420
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.

SAMSUNG DIGIMAX 420

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.

SAMSUNG DIGIMAX 420
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.

SAMSUNG DIGIMAX 420SAMSUNG DIGIMAX 420

 

 

SAMSUNG DIGIMAX 420

Berlin

SAMSUNG DIGIMAX 420

Berlin is Germany’s capital city and a place of great history and exciting modern culture.Throughout the 1990s and the beginning of 21C, the city has reinvented itself as a beacon for culture, freedom and liberty, whilst cherishing and rebuilding its great heritage. During the second world war 60% of the city’s buildings were damaged or destroyed by bombs. The former Soviet East German regime did not favour the rebuilding and renovation of what they deemed to be reminders of the former Prussian ruling elite.SAMSUNG DIGIMAX 420SAMSUNG DIGIMAX 420

At the forefront of a modern Germany which celebrates its diversity in the shadow of the atrocities committed by the National Socialist Regime under Adolf Hitler, Berlin is a broad-minded, all-embracing, dynamic city, the largest in Europe.

A fascination with the icon that was the Berlin wall was the main pull for me, but also an interest in the Berlin that was lost before the war, and the place of spies and secrets of the cold war years.The city was everything I had hoped it to be – and more – and over the course of four days I became one of its many admirers.

SAMSUNG DIGIMAX 420

Schӧnefeld Airport lies to the south east of the city of Berlin. On leaving the Airport we decided to make our way to our hotel by train; this turned out to be a bad idea and one we abandoned within twenty minutes of trying hard and getting nowhere. The German train station – or Bahnhof – is a bitter sweet place; most are unstaffed, and this extends to the trains also. Travelling for free – should somebody be so inclined – would be very easy: tickets are bought from machines, are never checked (no guards or station staff) and there are no barriers to pass through. Conversely, this means nobody is there to explain the mysteries of buying the right ticket from those less straightforward ticket machines such as the one at Schӧnefeld, or to provide help or advice. After spending 20 minutes queuing with a multitude of fellow arrivees to the city, only to find the machine would not issue the kind of ticket we wanted, we decided to jump into a cab. As I left this subterranean hell, I witnessed the looks of desperation on the faces of the people in the serpantine queue. By my estimation, the poor souls at the back would be waiting at least an hour to reach the machine.

Our hotel, Berlin Ost Best Western, was in the Friedrichshain area of the city. We realised we had struck lucky in choosing this busy, vibrant and Bohemian location. The standard 3* accommodation met all our needs and the staff were pleasant and helpful. An abundance of patisseries provided plenty of choice for breakfast each morning and we were similarly spoiled every evening as we ventured out for dinner. We’re both vegetarian and we were not disappointed.

After checking in, unpacking and enjoying a welcome lunch of generous-sized sandwiches at a friendly neighbourhood patisserie, we headed for the local U-bahn which was situated right outside our hotel. This time the machine was straightforward and thanks to a frequent service we were in AlexanderPlatz, central Berlin, within 10 minutes.SAMSUNG DIGIMAX 420

There we changed train and continued a little bit further to the still standing section of the Berlin wall which has been turned into the East Side Gallery.

SAMSUNG DIGIMAX 420

Berlin is a city of art and expression and this takes many forms, not least graffiti. It is daubed in spray paint, from empty shop fronts to railway bridges and in some cases even private residences. This was one of the things which first struck us when we arrived. It has to be said though that this graffiti is smart; it’s interesting and often thought provoking and challenging, and it isn’t found on heritage sites……except one in particular.

SAMSUNG DIGIMAX 420

The East Side Gallery – that section of the Berlin wall which was left intact (minus the barbed wire)- displays some paintings by internationally renowned artists such as Thierry Noir and Bodo Sperling. Over the years Berliners have added their own slogans and visual representations to the existing works: art or vandalism? We can ask the question. Some of the weathered and damaged art work has been restored. It’s easy to lose perspective as we admire and take photographs, of why this structure was erected in the first place and what it meant for so many lives. I’m glad I got to see it as it may not be there for much longer.

SAMSUNG DIGIMAX 420SAMSUNG DIGIMAX 420SAMSUNG DIGIMAX 420SAMSUNG DIGIMAX 420

On day two, after breakfasting on pastries and excellent coffee, we again made our way by U-bahn to Alexanderplatz where we boarded the tour bus for a leisurely two hour ride around the city.

SAMSUNG DIGIMAX 420

The pre-recorded information was helpful and available in 22 languages. Berlin is vast and I had a sense of travelling through several different towns rather than one sprawling metropolis. Much of it is new and we were taken aback by the massive amount of construction which was going on.

Another feature of Berlin, which took some getting used to, was the cycle lane which takes up a section of every pavement. Berliners are very enthusiastic about cycling and it was inspirational to see how so many had embraced this green and healthy mode of transport around a city where journeys can be frustratingly long by car and bus. By day three, after several near misses, I had just about got used to not wandering absent-mindedly into cycle lanes. This positive development didn’t guarantee my safety though, as many two-wheeled pavement users would disregard their allocated strip anyway.

Crossing roads in Berlin also requires nerves of steel: the pedestrian always comes last. When the green man is eventually displayed, a high speed dash is required as it won’t stay green for long and motorists are itching to drive on, hot on the heels of nervous pedestrians, nudging forward whilst the light for them is still showing red. You get used to this and as long as you are resolute and confident and carry on walking rather than giving in to them, they will hold back. It’s not as bad as Paris where motorists disregard traffic lights altogether and don’t even give pedestrians a chance to cross.

Two places I wanted to see were the Brandenburg Gate and Checkpoint Charlie, arguably the city’s best known landmarks and synonymous with the ‘iron curtain’ east/west divide. 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. I vividly recall watching those momentous scenes in November 1989 when Berliners from east and west of the city converged on both sides of the wall at the site of Brandenburg Tor (gate). I wanted to see it for myself.

SAMSUNG DIGIMAX 420SAMSUNG DIGIMAX 420

The Pariser Platz – the large open square onto which the Gate opens – is one of the few places in the whole of Berlin with souvenir shops selling the usual ‘I love Berlin’ suspects. This was one of the things I enjoyed most about my visit; the people of the city were charming, helpful and friendly, yet I didn’t feel like I was being offered a pre-packaged tourist experience. I felt like I was being treated like anybody else.

Close to Brandenburg was the aforementioned Tiergarten, a wooded park and former hunting ground of royalty. Happily, no hunting is allowed there today and the animal residents are hopefully safe. The only ones I saw were the dogs taking their owners out for a stroll. I liked the Tiergarten and would have enjoyed spending more time there, but it was almost dusk and I didn’t fancy being there in the dark. I expect it would be a hub for picnickers and sunbathers alike in the summer months, as all city green spaces tend to be, but for me the colours of autumn, the fading light and the nip in the air all conspired to create a beautifully spiritual and slightly other-worldly atmosphere.

SAMSUNG DIGIMAX 420

Checkpoint Charlie, the American Army border crossing immortalised in cold-war themed books and films has been made into a museum piece. It looks slightly surreal in the middle of what is now a thriving shopping street; a bit like an attraction at a poor theme park. I had not expected this and had thought it would still be in the no man’s land it had occupied during during the Soviet years. Considering it was a place where many lost their lives in brave attempts to defect to the west, I had expected it to have a higher profile and that there would be a bit more reverence shown, but perhaps it is more fitting – and poignant – that life now goes on around it and it serves as a reminder.

SAMSUNG DIGIMAX 420SAMSUNG DIGIMAX 420SAMSUNG DIGIMAX 420

Another reminder of lives brutally lost during Germany’s past is the Holocaust memorial in the west of the city near to the Brandenburg Gate. To me, this memorial is inspired and hard-hitting. What could sum up the horror better than a depiction of a cemetery in the middle of the city? Beneath the 2, 711 concrete ‘tombs’ is an information centre.

SAMSUNG DIGIMAX 420

Towards the end of the afternoon we took time out for one of the most bizarre coffee stops of my life thus far. Following the directions on a placard positioned next to an alley on Pariser Platz, we wandered into this little courtyard, two hungry travellers tempted by the promise of victuals. We made the mistake of stopping short of the real destination and found ourselves in an establishment whose purpose we were unsure of: ‘Miele’.

I had seen Miele coffee machines on sale in UK department stores and have one of their coffee bean grinders in my kitchen. I didn’t know they made a range of high-end kitchen equipment for the European market. The restaurant/café (too small to be the former; too exclusive to be the latter) seemed pretty standard from the outside. There were a few tables out in the pretty little courtyard, but we decided to go in. That was where it got weird. To one side were a few dining tables, none occupied except one, where it appeared that a staff meeting was being held. The rest of the floor space was taken up by washing machines and dryers, all in use! Laundry was being loaded, detergents being poured, towels being removed from a dryer and folded. The chrome of the drums glistened as they revolved at high speed and low sound. At first we thought we had wandered into not a real eatery, but part of a white products demonstration set-up. This view was endorsed when we noticed various ovens and counters off to the other side, cooking utensils all being dried and polished and put away. We were eventually attended to by a pleasant young woman who looked a little bemused by our sudden appearance and not a little put-out. The menu was very limited and most things were sold out. This unusual menu offered details as to which of the Miele ovens each dish would be cooked in and other equipment which would be used in its preparation. Service was slow, but we did finally receive our order of rather delicious type of apple cake and coffee. The bill was brought after the second request and we had a strong sense that our departure from this surreal tableau was appreciated. The menu didn’t state which Miele dishwasher would be used to clean our crockery….

SAMSUNG DIGIMAX 420

I was looking forward to day three and our visit to Bohemian, hip Kreuzberg with its diverse culture and the lure of a Turkish meal. Before reunification this German suburb attracted the bright young things and the not so young idealists and was a hub for alternative cultures. Turkish immigrants later made the area their home and it split off into various zones. A large outdoor Turkish market is held twice a week, unfortunately for us, not on a Thursday.

I have to say I was disappointed in Kreuzberg; to be fair we did only stay a couple of hours, so didn’t see all it had to offer, but we were surprised at how run down and littered it was on the few streets we saw (Berlin on the whole is litter free and puts UK cities to shame). A pharmacy we passed on our walk was most interesting.

SAMSUNG DIGIMAX 420SAMSUNG DIGIMAX 420

Although there were lots of Turkish and other eateries, most seemed to be offering donner kebabs and our veggie nostrils don’t really get along with those goat fat aromas. We found a quiet little place next to a quirky book shop and enjoyed a drink before heading off. Apparently the fresh banana milk shake was delicious! I was boring and opted for a coke.

Kreuzberg coloursSAMSUNG DIGIMAX 420

The Hackescher Hoffe courtyard markets were our next calling point. The area was similar to Covent Garden, but on a much smaller scale and with far less buzz. The little cobbled courtyards were very pretty and home to various artisans, some quite exclusive and expensive.

SAMSUNG DIGIMAX 420SAMSUNG DIGIMAX 420

The rest of the afternoon was taken up by a relaxing cruise on the Spree which presented some great photo opportunities.

SAMSUNG DIGIMAX 420SAMSUNG DIGIMAX 420SAMSUNG DIGIMAX 420SAMSUNG DIGIMAX 420

SAMSUNG DIGIMAX 420

The temperature dropped very suddenly during the 90 minute excursion. The blue sky had gone, replaced by an emerging fog. That famous landmark, the Berlin radio tower, appeared quite sinister in the midst of the fog blanket.

SAMSUNG DIGIMAX 420

We chose not to go inside the beautiful Berlin Cathedral and didn’t visit the numerous museums either, because our city break was short and we wanted to be out there rather than looking at the sort of exhibits which are often found in all big city showcases. If time had permitted we would have spent time on the scenic Museum Island and looked at more of what Berlin had to show us of its past.

Our final day was spent in Friedrichshain, the charming locality which we had thoroughly enjoyed being part of for a few days.

SAMSUNG DIGIMAX 420

SAMSUNG DIGIMAX 420