Copenhagen – in search of Nordic Noir

 

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

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

Copenhagen day 1

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Pere Lachaise Cemetery – stories of Paris Past

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Jim Morrison gum tree.

 

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

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

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

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Lipstick marks left by Oscar Wilde admirers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And alien tears will fill for him

Pity’s long-broken urn,

For his mourners will be outcast men,

And outcasts always mourn.

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

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

 

Stockholm: fairy tales and other stories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A window in Gamla Stan

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

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

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