A Travellerspoint blog

Cologne

Germany photos

Experiencing the myriad wonders and novelty of a wintertime festive season was one of the constituent objectives of my six months in Europe. This revelation will come as no surprise to my family, who somewhat embarrassingly refers to me as “Mr Christmas” (I suspect their day was rather shit last year, characterised by inherent laziness and nonchalance in my absence). I visited several quaint Christmas markets, iconic features of European cityscapes in winter, in Stockholm and Riga. But I wanted to travel to the heartland of Christmas markets, where they perhaps even supersede the big day in revelry: Germany. So I ventured to Cologne on yet another weekend escapade from Stockholm, which hosts arguably Europe’s biggest and best markets. I was joined by Australian Liam McGuinness, a resident of the southern German city of Ulm. Liam provided somewhat entertaining company, though his efforts in “what would you rather?” questions failed to inspire (“What would you rather be, an elevator or escalator?”).

large_DSC06272.jpg
Christmas market

Cologne is located on the Rhine River within Germany’s largest urban area, the polycentric Rhine-Ruhr metropolitan region. The city’s proximity to the French border alludes to an identity symptomatic of Western and Central European influences. Indeed, the French name for the city has been adopted for international use, rather than the German name (Koln). The Roman origins of Cologne distinguishes it from other major German cities, as Roman conquests extended only to the far west of the Germanic lands. Ruins and impressive mosaics of this initial settlement are consequently scattered throughout the city. During the Middle Ages, Cologne became a bastion of Catholicism north of the Alps and Protestantism failed to establish a foothold in the city during the Reformation. Cologne was designated as a free city within the Holy Roman Empire and became one of Europe’s richest cities as a key trading centre on the Rhine. It was eventually absorbed into the German Empire, after repeated French occupations. Cologne was one of the few German centres that resisted the electoral dominance of the Nazi Party in the early 1930s, though this failed to prevent the Nazi takeover of the city. Since the Rhine-Ruhr metropolitan region has traditionally functioned as continental Europe’s most expansive industrial base, Cologne was particularly targeted by Allied bombing campaigns during World War Two, resulting in the destruction of 95% of the city’s buildings. Reconstruction of Cologne’s most prominent cultural treasures lasted through to the 1990s.

large_DSC06287.jpg
View from the Rhine

While Cologne is hardly one of Europe’s most enthralling destinations, I was certainly impressed by the obvious liveability of the city. The population of Cologne is approximately one million (avid readers would be aware of my ambivalence towards small cities), but its location within a polycentric megalopolis within three hours drive of five countries augers a sense of centrality, connection and busyness bereft in comparably sized cities (such as isolated Stockholm). The inner core is highly functional, atmospheric and aesthetically pleasing, despite the prevalence for modernist structures. The preservation of relatively narrow streets and an emphasis on refined, rather than bombastic and imposing, architecture during Cologne’s reconstruction has successfully created a bustling, integrated community. The city is enlivened by major festivals throughout the year and boasts unique cultural traditions, cuisine and beer.

large_DSC06246.jpg

Utterly dominating the cityscape and defining the urban landscape is the Koln Dom, one of the world’s largest Gothic cathedrals. Construction of the Dom commenced in the thirteenth century, but it was not finished until more than 600 years later in 1880. The completion of the Dom was celebrated throughout the German Empire as a monument to the newly formed nation and a direct connection between medieval and modern German societies. The Dom features two spires of epic proportions that belittle all other structures in the inner city. The bulk of the building is also remarkably high, cavernous and foreboding. The immensity of the Dom is totally awe-inspiring and surprises you with every glance. The size is grossly disproportionate to neighbouring buildings and constitutes the only distinguishable element of the city from afar. Cologne Station and the city’s two most prominent squares surround the Dom, while major thoroughfares radiate from all sides. The Dom is embellished with dense layers of Gothic ornamentation, which exhibit considerable decay from centuries of weathering. This effect amplifies the haunting sense the Dom exudes.

large_DSC06343.jpg
Kolner Dom

Another prized and iconic feature of Cologne is the collection of twelve Romanesque churches that dot the inner city. The Romanesque dominated architecture in Western Europe from the reign of Charlemagne to the rise of the Gothic. The Romanesque was intended project power through mimicking the Classical architecture of Ancient Rome, although the truly impressive feats of Roman structural engineering failed to be replicated through lack of knowledge. Cologne’s surviving Romanesque heritage is unique among European cities, because most Romanesque churches were converted to Gothic structures. The thousand year old churches form particularly prominent landmarks in the city, as they are mostly surrounded by modernist buildings. While all the churches are characteristically Romanesque with bulky, monolithic and platonic designs replete with arches and vaulted ceilings, they each feature distinctive appearances (some with soaring square-based bell-towers, others with fake domes above the altars (the ability to construct domes was lost from Christendom for a thousand years).

large_DSC06245.jpg
Basilicia of the Holy Apostles

On the last weekend of November each year, a dozen sprawling Christmas markets materialise throughout central Cologne to fill the city with unrivalled merriment for the duration of the festive season. Thousands of jubilant visitors and locals alike pour into the markets each day between 10am and 10pm. With characteristic German punctuality, all stalls suddenly close at precisely ten o’clock, even with excessive crowds still eager for food and beverages. The stalls sell a melange of handcrafted German products, Christmas decorations, traditional German food, gluwein and beer. At night, the markets are illuminated by dazzling Christmas lights hanging from stalls, overhead wires and festooned on enormous Christmas trees. Below the towering spires of Kolner Dom is the city’s most iconic market, Weihnachstmarkt am Dom. The market is embellished with kitsch decorations and bright Christmas colours, no doubt to satisfy the predominately touristic crowd. The nearby “house gnomes Christmas market” in the heart of the Old Town is far more spacious, relaxed and historical. The stalls that line the winding alleys of this market reflect the traditional occupations of residents in Cologne (i.e. butcher, tailor, baker). The nickname for the market is derived from the legend that house gnomes once assisted their masters with their daily jobs. The stalls in this market are constructed from heavy carved wood with refined and tasteful Christmas decorations. The market also boasts an ice-skating rink and an area for a game similar to lawn bowls on ice. We also visited a market by the river with a maritime theme, a market beside a medieval city gate and the Market of Angels where all the stalls were white chalets. The markets are busy throughout the day but are particularly atmospheric in the early evening when locals flood in for post-work drinks.

large_DSC06283.jpg

While Liam’s gauntness is perhaps suggestive of a diet similar to Sean’s, fortunately his enthusiasm for the meat-and-starch heavy cuisine of Germany almost matches mine. We sampled numerous specialties of the Rhine region at the Christmas markets, including crispy deep-fried potato pancakes with apple sauce and cranberry sauce (Liam repeatedly expressed his disapproval for mixing sweet and savoury components in a dish), button mushrooms in creamy garlic sauce and Alsatian pizza (thin crust with crème fraiche, onions and bacon). Liam identified that the markets were littered with stalls specialising in the the cuisines of other German-speaking regions (Bavaria, Austria, Switzerland). I gorged on a delicious Austrian dessert called kaiserschmarrn, which consists of chopped pancakes with apple sauce and cherry sauce. We enjoyed several mugs of gluwein at the markets, the heavenly Christmas concoction of warm spiced red wine. I kept a boot shaped mug from one of the stalls, but unfortunately it smashed in my luggage.

large_DSC06286.jpg
Liam McG with potato pancakes

Kolsch is a pale lager that is synonymous with Cologne. Kolsch is always served in thin 210 millilitre glasses, rather than the steins of Bavaria, to ensure the beer is drank cold. To compensate for the relatively small servings, waiters hover around tables with trays of Kolsch beer, ready to replace empty glasses. We dined at a traditional beerhall twice to indulge in hefty portions of German fare and try Kolsch (in my opinion, not a terribly exciting drop). We eagerly snacked on one of Cologne’s most unique dishes, mett on a bun. The meat in question was raw minced pork (I was not aware that this is safe to consume), served with sliced raw onion and caraway seeds on an open bread roll. I ordered arguably the Rhineland’s most famous dish, sauerbraten, a pot roast of beef or, more traditionally, horse. The meat is marinated for several days in red wine, vinegar and spices before cooking. To counter the sourness of the marinade, the roasted meat is served with a gravy that is sweetened by the addition of raisins and red beet syrup. I was surprised to discover that the sauerbraten presented before me was in fact horse, which I found notably less tender than beef. The complex sweet-and-sour flavour of the dish, served with potato dumplings and apple sauce, was rather delicious though. On our next evening in the beerhall, I ate roasted beef with brown sauce, onions and baked potato with an enormous dollop of sour cream and gherkins.

large_DSC06326.jpg
Sauerbraten

I enjoyed an excellent weekend trip to Cologne that certainly ignited my anticipation for the festive season. Cologne is a pleasant city to explore and indulge in a dose of artery-clogging German fare. Thank you to Liam McGuinness for joining me in Cologne and hopefully we’ll rendezvous in another Central European city in the future!

That’s all for now,

Liam

Posted by Liamps 02:15 Archived in Germany Comments (0)

Riga

Latvia photos.

I travelled to Riga on my penultimate weekend adventure from Stockholm, which was my first foray into the former Soviet Union. Riga is certainly not among Europe’s most beautiful capitals, partly because historic buildings in the Old Town have literally sunk into swampland. Riga does not serve as a bastion of a rich and distinctive national culture, as the concept of a “Latvian” nation has existed for just one hundred years. Nor is the city especially evocative of the communist epoch in Eastern Europe; Riga feels firmly entrenched in the West. Yet my initial assessment of Riga as “not terribly enthralling” proved to be a grossly inaccurate depiction of the largest city in the Baltic states.

large_DSC06164.jpg

Riga’s appeal is the architectural and social diversity in the central areas of the city. The Old Town is quite large relative to the size of Riga and boasts a multitude of architectural styles (though mainly post Renaissance). Surrounding the Old Town on the eastern side is the world’s largest concentration of Art Nouveau buildings. South of the Old Town is an expansive market occupying former Zeppelin hangers. Piercing the skyline of Riga are the spires of Lutheran, Catholic and Russian Orthodox churches and communist and post-independence monuments. Districts of quaint wooden buildings abound on the opposite side of the vast Daugava River. These areas, formerly the abode of industrial workers, are now Bohemian neighbourhoods that have successfully preserved the sense of local community within a big city.

large_DSC06146.jpg

I travelled to Riga expecting to encounter the same grumpiness, bluntness and complete lack of friendliness that I found to be characteristic of the Poles (not necessarily a negative judgement by the way! It was all part of the fun of visiting Poland). However, I thought the Latvians were delightful; always greeting me with a genuine smile, very hospitable, surprisingly good at English and eager to chat when they spoke the language. Even people I really didn’t expect to be particularly warm, such as non-English speaking counter staff at communist-era canteens and market stalls, were always very pleasant. Sometimes quite frazzled to serve a strange-looking tourist at a non-touristic establishment, but committed to finding an amiable solution (where as in Poland I would have just been brushed aside). The Latvians are probably among the friendliest people I have met in Europe.

DSC06157.jpg

Riga was founded in the early thirteenth century by German colonisers, who supported Pope Innocent III’s northern crusade against the pagan Baltic tribes. The city was established on marshy land beside the Daugava River, which penetrates deep into Russia. Riga quickly became a key trading interchange between the East and West and joined the Hanseatic League in 1282. For seven hundred years, the city was politically and economically dominated by the minority German merchant class, marginalising the majority Latvian population. Riga was thus influenced significantly by German culture and artistic traditions, which has shaped an identity more synonymous with Central Europe than Eastern Europe. This is evident in the city’s constituent religion (Lutheranism) and the architectural composition of the Old Town. Unfortunately, most of Riga’s medieval structures were either demolished or lie below ground level, as new buildings and thoroughfares were constructed on old, sinking foundations. However, some medieval structures have been preserved and converted into underground restaurants and beer halls. Most of the Old Town’s existing buildings are of German Baroque and Neoclassical styles, flaunting a kaleidoscope of vibrant colours. The Old Town’s churches however are mostly Gothic structures with slender, towering brickwork spires reminiscent of Scandinavian cities.

DSC06228.jpg

Riga was incorporated into a succession of empires, culminating in the Russian Empire’s hegemonic rule from 1710. In the late nineteenth century, Riga rapidly developed into one of the largest, richest and most industrialised cities in the Russian Empire, primarily due to its strategic position. The economic boom transformed Riga, with the city’s medieval fortified walls demolished to facilitate urban expansion. The newfound wealth manifested in the construction of Art Nouveau buildings, which became the obsession of Riga’s elites. Consequently, the north-eastern district surrounding the Old Town is composed almost entirely of beautiful Art Nouveau buildings bordering expansive boulevards. Where as the Art Nouveau styles of Paris, Brussels and Vienna are characterised by floral motifs and sinuous geometric patterns, Art Nouveau architects in Riga attempted to create a distinctive Latvian style inspired by local history, construction materials and nature. This ideal was motivated by the Latvian National Awakening, a nationalistic response to the russification of Latvia. The Art Nouveau architecture was not only embraced for its contemporary popularity in Europe, but also for political purposes.

DSC06214.jpg

An equally beautiful component of Riga, though developed for the occupancy of an entirely different social class, are the districts of nineteenth century wooden buildings. The buildings were erected during Riga’s industrial boom to accommodate factory workers in overcrowded and decrepit conditions. However, these humble two-storey dwellings have aged and decayed gracefully and now form serene neighbourhoods on the west bank of the Daugava. In the Kalnciema district, I visited a wonderful Saturday market in a yard surrounded by wooden buildings. My visitation to Riga coincided with the beginning of the Christmas season (end of November), so the market was brimming with handcrafted Christmas gifts. I was in such a grand spirit that I spontaneously purchased some non-culinary acquisitions (though needless to say, I hardly left the market hungry), an almost unprecedented event in my travels!

DSC06162.jpg

Latvian independence was briefly achieved after the Russian Revolution, but the country was forcibly incorporated into the Soviet Union by Stalin during World War Two. To cement Latvia’s place in the union, hundreds of thousands of Russians relocated to Latvia, which reduced the ethnic Latvian composition of the country from 77% to 52% by 1989. Latvia was one of the first republics to declare independence from the Soviet Union and has since attempted to strengthen its sovereignty militarily, economically and culturally from Russia. Latvia is clearly an enthusiastic member of the European Union and NATO; Riga is in fact the only city I have travelled to where I repeatedly noticed the NATO flag flying prominently. I suppose it’s a clear indication that Russia still casts an ominous and unwanted shadow over the small states of Eastern Europe. The strategic acumen of expanding the EU and NATO so rapidly into Eastern Europe, to the wrath of Russia, has been debated ad nauseum. Perhaps the policy has jeopardised relations between the West and Russia; but is it moral to once more abandon these populations to Russian dominance as the West did after World War Two? I think any country with a Western cultural tradition that embraces liberal, secular democratic ideals and the Western alliance has an inviolable right to be protected by the Western alliance.

DSC06202.jpg

Symbolising the independence of Latvia is the iconic National Library, the modern pride of the country. A national library for Latvia has repeatedly been denied by ruling powers, so Riga had the unusual distinction for a capital of lacking a major facility to store the city’s literary collection. Consequently, the construction of a national library, replete with monumental and distinctive architecture to celebrate Latvian sovereignty, became a foremost priority for the government post-independence. The building, completed in 2014, resembles a metallic pyramid with a bent summit. The interior is as much about the unusual geometric layouts of the floor plans, atriums and staircases as the books (the library effectively functions as the custodians of the Latvian language.

DSC06133.jpg

Easily my favourite part of Riga was the huge Central Market (particularly relished considering the absence of one in Stockholm). The market resembles a series of Zeppelin hangars, as the facades of obsolete hangars were refitted to the front of the cavernous market halls in the 1920s. Each hall is devoted to a particular food group: meat (by far the largest, indicative of the national diet), dairy, fruit and vegetables (featuring a bewildering array of pickled vegetables) and seafood. However, throughout the market were numerous specialty stores selling (specifically) tomatoes, dill, parsley and spring onions.

DSC06118.jpg

Latvian cuisine features all the delicious, artery-clogging hallmarks of Eastern European food, with a few unique twists. Pickles are served ubiquitously with meals to cut through the grease, with gherkins and pickled pumpkin (now my favourite way to eat pumpkin) especially popular. Communist-era canteens serve ultra-cheap bite-sized Latvian dumplings, called pelmeni. These self-service lunchtime canteens usually offer meat-filled dumplings boiled in broth and deep-fried cheese dumplings, collectively eaten with sour cream, pickles and parsley. I sampled sauerkraut soup, a surprisingly delectable and rich soup consisting of little more than sauerkraut, stock and a dollop of sour cream. I also enjoyed one of my favourite Central-Eastern European dishes, cabbage rolls stuffed with meat, served with shreds of potato fried in a copious amount of oil. Twice I dined at a subterranean pub that occupies a sunken medieval hall. On my first night, I had potato dumplings with sour cream and cranberry jam, battered chicken topped with onion, pickled cucumber, mushrooms, goat’s cheese and cram sauce and rye bread pudding. On my second night there, I drank cranberry beer (quite delicious and not excessively sweet. Fruit beers seem to be popular in Latvia) and enjoyed a huge “beer tasting” plate of cured meats, smoked cheese, vegetables and garlic rye bread croutons, followed by beef “stroganoff” (more like a casserole, since it was absent of cream and mushrooms). Sklandrausis, probably Latvia’s moat traditional baked good, is a sweet pie made from rye dough, filled with carrot and potato mash and flavoured with caraway seeds (massively overrated). Reflecting Latvia’s former place in the Soviet Union, numerous Uzbek eateries dot the city.

DSC06154.jpg

While I was unable to visit the other Baltic capitals of Talinn and Vilnius, my weekend trip to Riga certainly provided a pleasant sample of this tiny region. Riga is hardly a WOW-factor destination, but it features several appealing characteristics: the city is off the mass-tourist trail, its history is defined by its status as an interface between two distinct cultural regions (Europe and Russia), it boasts immense architectural diversity) and scrumptious cheap food. Riga is definitely worth a three day break!

That’s all for now,

Liam

Posted by Liamps 21:44 Archived in Latvia Comments (0)

Småland

Sweden photos

Geographically dominating the southern third of Sweden is the historical province of Småland, which literally translates to “small lands”. While the province is not one of Sweden’s most iconic destinations, numerous American tourists visit Småland to discover their ancestral roots or to purchase handcrafted glassware. I travelled to Småland for an entirely different purpose though; to rendezvous with a Swedish couple I met while staying at Hotel Kangaroo in Guatemala. Jakob and Kristin hosted me in their apartment for three days and generously provided enthusiastic tours and insights into the region. I visited Jakob’s childhood village Ingolstad, met with his family, watched a game of floorball (or innebandy) and attended the 30th anniversary of the Dacke Drangar Barbershop Chorus, a musical group cherished by the local community. These experiences were atypical for the standard touristic routine, which usually constitutes ticking off “must-see” attractions and socialising solely with other foreign visitors. However, I always find that the rare and privileged opportunities to stay with local people are especially rewarding, because the exposes the reality of a destination and the day-to-day lifestyle of the populace.

Jakob and Kristin live in the small and almost unpronounceable city of Växjö, just near the university where they both studied. The city is defined by the plethora of lakes within its vicinity, several of which penetrate into the urban area. The Swedish countryside is dotted with a seemingly endless number of lakes and this is particularly evident in Småland. Predictably, the lakes are surrounded by quaint red-and-white wooden summer houses for the Swedes to indulge in their love of serenity and nature. We visited the medieval fortress of Kronoberg Castle on an island of the largest lake in the region. Kronoberg was the stronghold for a failed peasant-led revolt against King Gustav Vasa in the sixteenth century (called the Dacke War after the peasant leader). The peasants relied upon their knowledge of the thick forests of Småland, which the region is renowned for, to conduct guerrilla warfare against the royal forces. Although the revolt was crushed, the proximity of Kronoberg to the Danish border resulted in its further fortification. Kronoberg is today a robust stone ruin surrounded by thick reeds. Småland is still covered in dense forest, partly because of the poor agricultural potential of the landscape. However, a freak cyclone ten years ripped through the region and destroyed thousands of acres of forest.

Kronoberg Castle

Kronoberg Castle

Småland possesses Sweden’s third biggest tourist drawcard: Glasriket, or the “Kingdom of Crystal”. The glass industry has existed in this region for more than five hundred years and fifteen glassworks are now located throughout this heavily forested province. We visited the glassworks owned by Kosta Boda, one of the largest producers of handcrafted glassware in Sweden. The precinct features several showrooms and a museum displaying remarkable glass ornaments. However, I was considerably more interested in touring the neighbouring facility where the products are actually crafted. Amazingly, there were no entrance fees, checks, safety equipment or roped pathways for tourist visits. We were permitted to amble freely around the active workspace, despite the glassblowers handling materials of 1090 degrees Celsius plus! I doubt in Australia WorkSafe would condone such a situation and endeavour to soak all the fun out of the experience. We watched the glassblowers pour molten glass into moulds or literally blow glassware into shape. Also at the precinct was a small Christmas market (very early in the season), the first of many I would visit in the subsequent month. Since most of the stalls offered free tasting samples, I quickly realised I would become quite the fan of European Christmas markets.

Glass blowing

Glass blowing

I visited the family home where Jakob grew up, on a large property just outside the small village of Ingolstad. His mother prepared a delicious fish soup for lunch and waffles with cloudberry jam the next day. Jakob gave an impassioned tour of the property’s collection of buildings, which includes a greenhouse. I was rather surprised by its content, because I certainly wasn’t expecting to encounter delicious Mediterranean produce such as tomatoes, figs and grapes in the chilly Swedish countryside. The property is surrounded by thick forest, which Jakob would often explore as a child. He recounted a story of when he came across a dead moose in the woods. Intrigued, Jakob cut off the head, packed it in his bag and returned home. With dinner being served upon his return, he proceeded to forget about the head and leave the bag in the hallway. His mother was rather surprised to subsequently discover a pool of blood forming in the hallway, seeping through a backpack from a moose head! Unfortunately, we didn’t spot any moose while I was in Småland, though we did at least glimpse a handful of deer. We attended a game of floorball (innebandy in Sweden), a sport I had never previously heard of, to watch Jakob’s nephew play. Floorball is quite similar to ice hockey but is played on a basketball court with a hollow ball rather than a puck, lighter sticks and no padding.

House in Ingolstad

House in Ingolstad

Jakob and Kristin continuously repeated there would be a “surprise” on the Saturday night of my trip to Småland. I remained ignorant until the curtains were drawn at the Växjö Teater, revealing the Dacke Drangar Barbershop Chorus. For those unfamiliar (like me), Barbershop Choruses resemble all-male or all-female choirs that usually sing (I think) music from the 1950s and 1960s (my lack of musical knowledge is probably rising to the fore now). However, Dacke Drangar performed a mixture of old and modern classics, no doubt to enhance the comedic effect of their acts. The first act was rather sophisticated, with the thirty-odd members wearing formal attire and performing in a synchronised manner. The second act though was entirely contrasting, as the Chorus haphazardly assembled onto the stage in caveman costumes. They eventually morphed into Vikings for the final crescendo. Coincidentally, Dacke Drangar was celebrating its 30th anniversary that evening and I was invited to the celebrations at a local restaurant. The group has performed internationally on several occasions, including an Australian tour in 1990. Jakob’s father is an integral member of the Chorus, while Jakob has also performed for the group. Throughout the evening, the Barbershop Chorus and all those in attendance spontaneously broke into Swedish drinking song, of which there seems to be many. I attempted in vain to follow, but found the pronunciation of the lyrics completely incomprehensible. I noticed a distinct difference between Swedish and Australian culture that evening: when the Swedes raise their glasses to toast, they never clink them together (when in a group). Several times I went in for the clink, only to be left hanging!

Dacke Drangar Barbershop Chorus

Dacke Drangar Barbershop Chorus

For breakfasts, we introduced each other to delicacies unique to our respective cultures: Vegemite and Kalles kaviar. After first tasting Vegemite in Australia, Kristin had no intention of resampling our delectable black spread. Jakob gave it a try, though his response was essentially a diplomatic rejection. As the name denotes, Kalles kaviar is a pink paste made from fish eggs that is extremely potent and very salty. The paste is packaged into toothpaste tubes (like mayonnaise and other sauces in Sweden) and is exclusively eaten with hard-boiled eggs. I could handle a small dab on my eggs, though I wouldn’t describe myself as a great fan of the substance. I was, however, a great fan of the knäckebröd prepared by Jakob’s Mum. Knäckebröd is crisp flatbread (more like crackers) made from rye flour that is insanely popular throughout Sweden. Whole supermarket aisles are devoted to knäckebröd and it is usually served as an appetizer at restaurants. I usually find knäckebröd quite flavourless and dull, but the rendition prepared by Jakob’s Mum was sensational; probably because it was homemade. I also sampled her homemade grape wine and apple wine; both produced using fruit from their garden. Småland is famed for its distinctive style of cheesecake… though the dessert is quite different to the standardised New York cheesecake. The cake is quite firm, crumbly, very moist and heavy – though not as dense New York cheesecake. It doesn’t actually use cheese but milk curd and is consequently less rich. Småland cheesecake is much sweeter though and has subtle tastes of almond.

Special thank you to Jakob and Kristin for hosting me for the weekend in Småland! I described the trip to several international students at KTH, who remarked that they don’t have the opportunity to stay with local people in Sweden, because they don’t know any outside of Stockholm. Its always rather difficult to meet and befriend people actually from the country you are travelling in, so I was very lucky to meet Jakob and Kristin beforehand in Guatemala.

That’s all for now,

Liam

Sweden photos

Posted by Liamps 02:17 Archived in Sweden Comments (0)

Copenhagen

Denmark photos

Every great city must have an eternal rival; and as Sydney is Melbourne, so is Copenhagen to Stockholm. For centuries, the two capitals were bitter enemies as their respective kingdoms warred for militaristic supremacy in Scandinavia and the Baltic Sea. While animosities have since subdued, the unabashed pride and self-glorification of both Copenhageners and Stockholmers have not. Always intrigued by meaningless comparisons, I was thus stimulated to return to Copenhagen and conduct a proper evaluation of which city is genuinely Scandinavia’s finest. So I hopped on a fast train from Stockholm Central to Copenhagen for a weekend visit and was hosted for the second occasion by Globo Trip veteran, Danish Nadia.

Nyhavn

Nyhavn

Copenhagen is essentially a microcosm of Denmark, with its three distinguishing elements pervasive in the city: interminable flatness, the omnipresence of water and cycling. Copenhagen’s flatness is exacerbated by its architecture, which emphasises horizontality and lateral spaciousness. Copenhagen is therefore quite unique as a European city, because it doesn’t feel hampered by space limitations and congestion. Similar to Stockholm, waterways penetrate and divide the central area and give the city a distinct maritime character. Unlike its Swedish counterpart however, the waterways throughout Copenhagen are predominantly man-made or manipulated (aside of course from the Baltic Sea). Perhaps because of this, the central areas of Copenhagen are rather well connected and the city feels quite compact, which contrasts with Stockholm’s haphazard layout. Copenhagen is one of the world’s most bike-friendly cities and consequently the roads are plied by treacherous hordes of cyclists, seemingly more so than cars. The entrances to metro stations, which function as multi-modal interchanges, are surrounded by endless seas of bicycles.

Bicycles at the metro

Bicycles at the metro

Reflecting Denmark’s unique geographical position sandwiched between continental Europe and the Scandinavian Peninsula, Copenhagen’s architecture and culture are fusions of influences. The townhouses, old converted warehouses and public institutions are aesthetically reminiscent of Germany and particularly Amsterdam (aside from the aforementioned space factor), but its churches and landmark spires are definitively Nordic. The otherwise flat Copenhagen cityscape is punctuated by towering, slender spires replete with green copper roofing, which is a motif ubiquitous in all Scandinavian capitals. An entirely unique characteristic of Copenhagen’s architectural composition is the occasion use of vibrant orange in the colouration of buildings. While not commonly employed, the one in a hundred buildings painted orange complete command their locales aesthetically. Gentrification has occurred in numerous areas in Copenhagen that were formerly industrial zones. The continual use of warehouses, wharfs and working-class dormitory buildings through repurposing is more synonymous with New York, London and Melbourne than refined Stockholm. Copenhagen Street Food, a trendy food truck market occupying a former warehouse, is a quintessential example of this and mirrors Smorgasburg (New York), Camden Market (London) and the Night Market at Queen Victoria Market.

large_DSC05918.jpg

I suppose every country has a strange Christmas tradition. Denmark’s is that Tuborg Brewery’s “Christmas beer” can only be sold from the first Friday of November no earlier than 8:59pm. Consequently, the Danes accumulate in pubs to celebrate the occasion. The atmosphere does not quite match St. Patrick’s Day revelry, but its probably the best Scandis (renowned for their reservedness) can muster. Since my visitation happened to coincide with this event, Nadia and I ventured to a traditional pub with a collection of her friends for the evening. After the first Christmas beers were dispersed for free by the bar staff, I noticed that none of Nadia’s friends proceeded to purchase another bottle. No doubt that was because Christmas beer is hardly the finest drop. I suspect Tuborg recycles bad batches of other brews to create this rather unsatisfying concoction. They then bottle the beer, embellish the label with a Christmas theme and distribute the Christmas beer for free at 8:59pm to grateful (and, crucially, already intoxicated) consumers for company goodwill. The Danes then purchase the beer only for Christmas itself, for sentimental reasons.

Copenhagen easily defeats Stockholm in the culinary stakes, with the national cuisine more accessible and interesting. My previous visit to Denmark conspired to fill me with false hopes about the quality of bakeries in Stockholm, particularly in reference to rye bread and pastries. The Danes have certainly mastered the baking of rye bread and eat it with virtually every meal. The Danish take on cinnamon rolls, which are beloved in Stockholm, is much better than the Swedish version as it employs real pastry and occasionally chocolate rather than bread-like dough. The Danes elevate the creation of the humble sandwich into an art-form with smørrebrød. These little masterpieces, satisfying both to the palate and the eye, are open-sandwiches consisting of one slice of bread (usually rye) with a boundless combination of fine ingredients on top. Traditional combinations include pickled herring with curry salad, pickled herring with egg and chives, roast beef with horseradish, roast pork with red cabbage and pickled cucumber, shrimp with egg, smoked salmon with dill and sour cream, chicken salad and liver pate. Frikadeller are typical Danish meatballs consisting of any type of meat. I sampled giant fish frikadeller (or fish cakes) with remoulade and rye bread, which were moist and delicious.

Smørrebrød

Smørrebrød

The comparison between Copenhagen and Stockholm is somewhat similar to the dynamic between Melbourne and Sydney. From a macroscopic perspective, Stockholm and Sydney are incredibly beautiful cities, blessed with spectacular natural settings. But Copenhagen and Melbourne, both with compact and well integrated central areas, boast the vibrancy, culture and grunginess that distinguish them as their region’s best and most interesting cities.
View of Copenhagen

View of Copenhagen

That’s all for now,

Liam

Denmark photos

Posted by Liamps 04:09 Archived in Denmark Comments (0)

Norway in a Nutshell

Norway photos

Norway: the land of Vikings, fjords, brown cheese (more on that later) and surely the world's fittest people. To live in Stockholm for a semester and not visit the country often touted as the world's most beautiful would have been a grossly negligible oversight on my part. So with a five day interval between my solitary first "cycle" exam and the commencement of second cycle, I ventured west to Norway for a brief visit. I opted to take the standard tourist itinerary, officially referred to as "Norway in a Nutshell", to sample the country's renowned scenery. The Nutshell trip is basically a loop from Oslo to Bergen by train, then Bergen to Oslo by bus, fjord cruise, the historic Flam Railway and the standard inter-city train again. Australian Anne, who has now achieved the coveted honour as a "recurring character" of Globo Trip, joined me for the Bergen to Oslo leg to see Norway in... half a Nutshell?

My trip to Norway commenced with a twelve hour journey by train from Stockholm to Bergen on the west coast. Almost immediately after crossing the Swedish-Norwegian border, the scenery changed markedly. The pleasant Swedish countryside of rolling hills and meadows transitioned to the dramatic mountains that characterise Norwegian landscapes. When I arrived in Oslo, I was required to change to a connecting service after a ninety minute wait. I used this time to explore the area surrounding the train station and visit the Oslo Opera House. Scandinavian capitals seem to have a thing for constructing post-modernist opera houses prominently situated beside their waterfronts, no doubt in (failed) efforts to match the Sydney Opera House. I quickly became rather satisfied that I had only allocated the final afternoon of my trip to Norway in the capital, as I thought the city was entirely underwhelming.

Oslo Opera House

Oslo Opera House

The train from Oslo to Bergen was undoubtedly the most spectacular rail journey I have ever taken. For the first three hours we travelled past fjords, rivers, lakes, mountains, valleys, quaint villages of red-and-white wooden buildings and vast forests of autumnal leaves. Even at this early stage of my trip, I recognised that the superlatives used habitually to describe the natural composition of Norway are entirely justified. The train travelled through tunnels regularly, which resulted in dramatic changes to the vistas afforded. On one such occasion, the train entered a tunnel from a forested, green landscape and exited into a white winter wonderland. The train traversed one of Europe’s highest plateaus for two hours, providing sublime views that I would never expect to enjoy from the comfort of a train. I was incredibly lucky that the plateau was blanketed in snow, because the first showers for the season came just three days prior. Additionally, the sun broke through the bleak greyness of the Norwegian sky to illuminate the snow coverage. The train passed frozen lakes, mountain peaks and tiny hamlets occupying the most isolated and inhospitable of locations. When the train stopped at the highest station on the Bergen Line, I was able to observe the rail tracks just poking above thick layers of snow; the ballast and sleepers were completely submerged. As darkness descended, I was left to ponder what marvellous views I was missing out on. The train eventually arrived in Bergen by the early evening.

Oslo to Bergen

Oslo to Bergen

Bergen occupies a peninsula on the west coast of Norway beside the North Sea. Countless islands dot the water surrounding Bergen’s peninsula. The urban area is fragmented into numerous clusters located on fjords and bays and separated by the mountainous terrain. The centre of Bergen is surrounded by the “Seven Mountains” (debated rages about which mountains specifically constitute the Seven), which are covered in thick forests. Bergen is also notoriously Europe’s rainiest city. Fortunately, the weather was sunny on my first morning in Bergen, allowing me to enjoy extraordinary panoramic views from the famed lookout, Mt. Fløyen.

Bergen

Bergen

I was surprised to find numerous Norwegians jogging further upwards from Mt. Fløyen into a national park. Intrigued, I quickly glanced at a map and decided to follow a trail for an hour or so and see where it would take me. After thirty minutes of hiking through thick pine forest, I reached a mountain with a sheer rock face. I decided to follow the Norwegians ascending the mountain, expecting that I would enjoy magnificent views at its summit. Indeed, the views were tremendous, but I was not properly at a summit. The Norwegians and the trail continued down a valley and then up to a much higher ridge, which is obscured from view in central Bergen. Although I had already hiked for an hour and lacked food, curiosity compelled me to press forth. Unfortunately my thoroughly worn-out (though still not replaced) runners were grossly insufficient for the muddy conditions, as both of my feet were routinely saturated. The landscape changed considerably at this altitude, with yellowish-green scrub punctuated by granite boulders and small, placid black lakes (impressively at over 500 metres in altitude). The scenery reminded me vividly of Cradle Mountain in Tasmania. Eventually, I reached the ridge and enjoyed remarkable 360 degrees views. However, I noticed cairns located intermittently along the ridge with Norwegians following them, so I was bound to continue hiking. Unfortunately I hadn’t noticed a map since the beginning, so I didn’t know where I was actually hiking to. I fielded this question to a trio of Norwegian ladies, but was horrified to discover that they didn’t speak English (any extreme rarity in Sweden). I vaguely suspected that the trail was perhaps a loop and would eventually descend back to the city, but I wasn’t convinced it was a one-day hike. I was also unaware how long I had been hiking for (since this was an entirely spontaneous escapade), though estimated four to five hours. So by 1:20pm, I determined that I had no choice but to turn back since it would be dark by 4:30pm. I charged down then up then down the trail back to Mt. Floyen and was deflated when I studied the map. I realised that I had completed at last 80% of a loop back to Bergen when I decided to turn back! I was also just hundreds of metres away from the highest point in the Bergen area at 643 metres (though I must have been quite high, since the peak was not patently obvious).

Hike above Bergen

Hike above Bergen

Since night had already befallen Bergen by the time I returned to the centre, I decided to "relax" (which usually corresponds to writing this damn blog) at the hostel and await Anne's midnight arrival. Mindful that we only had 8.5 hours of sunlight available to explore Bergen, we awoke relatively early in the morning while other guests confusingly slept in. We first visited the nearby fortress and were amused by a young soldier who was struggling to carry three poles, poor guy. We passed two medieval churches that are some of the only medieval structures surviving in the city despite its one thousand year history due to fires. We ambled through the historic German neighbourhood of Bryggen, which is the most attractive area of the city. Bergen’s strategic location as a key interchange between Northern Norway and Central Europe attracted the lucrative trade of the Hanseatic League. The League established their northernmost outpost in the city (Bryggen) and its beautiful wooden merchant houses survive by the waterfront. Between the houses are narrow, planked alleys and overlapping balconies, which give Bryggen the appearance of a pirate’s lair. For lunch, we ventured to the touristic fish market and were bitten nastily by Norwegian prices - $30 for fish and chips. Our evening meal at a bustling local tavern was considerably better value. We had fish and macaroni cake with butter sauce, boiled potatoes and a pile of grated carrot; rustic but quite delicious.

Bergen

Bergen

The next day, we commenced our journey back to Oslo by train, bus and ferry. The train to Voss was rather scenic, hugging the side of a fjord and travelling through mountainous landscape. The bus journey was somewhat more impressive as the mountains became considerably more dramatic. However, the highlight of the day was the ferry from Gudvangen to Flåm on the World Heritage-listed Nærøyfjord. The fjord is bordered by mountains with slopes that rise almost sheer from the water to heights of 1,300 metres above sea level. The slopes are draped in forest, with a sprinkling of extremely isolated farmhouses and grazing areas that cling precariously. Numerous waterfalls tumble down the slopes into the still waters of the fjord, which reaches a depth of 500 metres. Seals, porpoises and even whales are found in the fjord, though Anne and I were the only people on the ferry who failed to spot any marine mammals. We were too busy sampling brown cheese, which a friendly American couple offered us to sample. The cheese is made from a mixture of milk, cream and why that is boiled until the water evaporates. The milk sugar is caramelised by the heat, which gives the cheese its distinctive brown colour and decadent flavour.

Gudvangen

Gudvangen

While most other tourists on-board the ferry immediately transferred to a train bound for Oslo, we opted to stagger the long journey over two days and stay in the village of Flåm. Flåm is situated by Nærøyfjord and is surrounded by incredibly steep mountains. The village was formerly accessible only by boat, until the Flåm Railway was completed in 1941. Flåm has consequently become a key touristic interchange between Norway’s most famous fjord and the Oslo – Bergen Line. Since we travelled to Norway in low-season, we feared our hostel would be completely empty and the quietness in Flåm did not conjure much hope. As we approached our hostel located on a farm, scepticism about whether it was actually open grew. We pleasantly discovered that a dozen other tourists were staying at the hostel, which was composed of several large wooden houses. We shared a house with a Dutch guy, who was eager to watch the Rugby World Cup Final and was therefore very enthusiastic to be with two Aussies. He obviously had no awareness of the Barassi Line, as we proceeded to show far more interest in our dinner (an uneventful meal of spaghetti, tomato sauce and smoked salmon for those interested). Later in the evening, we watched the epic Norwegian mockumentary Troll Hunter; perfect for a cold, dark night in an isolated pocket of Norway!

Flam

Flam

The next morning, we caught the Flåm Railway to Myrdal, a junction on the Oslo – Bergen Line. Described by the local tourist board as “the most beautiful train journey in the world”, the Flåm Railway is internationally famous for the breathtaking views it provides while ascending 863 metres in just twenty kilometres. The Flåm Railway was an audacious feet of engineering when it was constructed and remains one of the steepest railways in the world. The train itself is decked out in old-world charm, with wooden panels and red material seats. The conductor for our journey was probably the happiest person I have ever encountered, laughing spontaneously at any sentence uttered his way. After approximately 45 minutes of stupefying views, the train arrived at Myrdal located on the plateau that the Oslo – Bergen Line traverses. We soon connected with a train to Oslo and enjoyed the scenery I had witnessed four days earlier. Remarkably, most of the snow had melted away in that short period in between, completely exposing the tracks and much of the landscape. We arrived in Oslo after five hours on the train.

Flam Railway

Flam Railway

In the fading light of our last Norwegian afternoon (for now), we quickly explored central Oslo. Unfortunately the relative newness of Oslo and Norway’s history as a subjugated country (to Denmark until the Napoleonic Wars; Sweden thereafter until independence in 1905) has condemned the city to a rather uninspiring appearance. Oslo lacks the monumental institutions and beautiful architecture prevalent in other European capitals. The city is instead composed of mundane nineteenth century neoclassical and twentieth century modernist edifices. The central area of Oslo is also notably sterile and lifeless for a capital, probably because of its relatively small population (650,000) and heinously expensive prices. The most appealing attribute of Oslo is the natural setting: the city borders an eponymous fjord and is surrounded by mountains, providing convenient access to hiking and skiing possibilities for locals. We witnessed a brilliant Scandinavian sunset over the Oslofjord and promenade from the city’s medieval fortress.

Sunset in Oslo

Sunset in Oslo

While I thoroughly enjoyed the Norway in a Nutshell itinerary, I certainly departed the country before I had a proper appreciation for what Norway has to offer. Of course, five days was never going to be enough time to explore this obscenely beautiful country. Although Norway is culturally very similar to Sweden, I was surprised by how totally different the country’s geography and landscapes are.
That's all for now,

Liam

Norway photos

Posted by Liamps 10:05 Archived in Norway Comments (0)

Krakow

Poland photos

Warning! A needlessly long blog entry is about to follow! Consequently, I will make this introduction relatively short and thankfully absent of failed attempts at witticisms. After Warsaw, Australian Andrew and I continued our Polish adventure in the ancient royal capital of Krakow. We spent five nights in the city, exploring its historic quarters and excellent museums. Krakow is a unique destination in Europe, boasting the beauty of a medieval old town and the substance of a city dramatically affected by tangibly recent major events.

DSC05285.jpg

Although Polish history is usually characterised by invasion, foreign occupancy and tragedy, Poland was one of Europe’s great powers for nearly five hundred years. The Poles, a Slavic tribe from the steppes of Eurasia, first settled in Central and Eastern Europe in the eighth century. By the eleventh century, they had established a unified kingdom that roughly corresponded to the modern-day borders. Krakow became the royal capital in 1038 and retained that privileged status for more than five centuries. After the ruinous Mongol invasions of 1241-42, Poland flourished in the fourteenth century during the reign of Kazimierz III. The kingdom’s territory expanded rapidly, an extensive network of fortifications were constructed and the royal capital became one of Europe’s leading artistic centres. Kazimierz also passed enlightened laws that transformed Poland into a safe haven for Jews, which would eventually result in the largest Jewry in Europe. Poland and Lithuania formed a dynastic alliance to defeat the Teutonic Order in 1410. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth evolved into Europe’s largest state, three times the current Polish territory. To more appropriately reflect the geographical composition of the Commonwealth, the capital was moved from Krakow to Warsaw in 1596. Krakow’s golden years thus concluded and the city population continuously declined.

Cloth Hall

Cloth Hall

The Commonwealth suffered from repeated conflicts with the Ottomans, Russians, Swedes and Prussians in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that gradually eroded its power and lands. When Polish independence was entirely dissolved (Third Partition of Poland – 1795), Krakow remerged as the cultural and spiritual centre of Polish society. This was partly because of the relatively liberal policies of the Habsburg Austrian rulers, who had no intentions of eradicating Polish culture as the Russians and Prussians did elsewhere in the occupied Polish lands. When Poland was occupied by the Nazis during World War Two, Krakow was sparred the devastation inflicted on virtually every other Polish city. The Nazis considered Krakow sufficiently “German” in appearance to be suitable for German colonists. Consequently, Krakow’s priceless architectural heritage was almost entirely preserved. In 1978, the Archbishop of Krakow became the first non-Italian leader of the Catholic Church in 455 years. Pope John Paul II held a mass rally in 1979 in Krakow that attracted more than one million people. His implied criticisms of communism are widely credited with igniting the independence movements that swept Central and Eastern Europe in the 1980s. Images and statues of John Paul II are ubiquitous throughout Krakow, which is still a devoutly religious city.

Krakow’s World Heritage listed old town is undoubtedly one of Europe’s best preserved medieval cores. The authenticity of its buildings is particularly remarkable considering the city suffered nearly two centuries of continual occupation, most notably by the Nazis. The layout is unusually logical for a medieval old town, featuring a grid-pattern and an immense market square in the middle. The Rynek, the largest medieval square in Europe, is dominated by a triumvirate of structures that aesthetically form a diagonal across the vast space. In the northeast corner is arguably Poland’s most historical religious building, St. Mary’s Church, a Gothic redbrick structure dominated by two asymmetrical towers. The taller tower has traditionally been owned by the city and functioned as a watchtower. A bugle call is still sounded hourly from its summit, having previously warned residents of fire or invaders. Inside the church is a magnificently carved thirteenth century altarpiece depicting the Assumption; one of the masterpieces of Gothic art. Occupying the centre of the Rynek is the Cloth Hall, a 108 metre long structure embodying both Gothic and Renaissance architectural elements. The interior hall was formerly a major hub of international trade when Krakow was the royal capital and a key interface between eastern and western societies. The Cloth Hall is reminiscent of the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul and is now brimming with touristic paraphernalia. The building is surrounded with arcades of Gothic pointed arches. In the southwest corner of the Rynek is the Town Hall Tower, the only remaining vestige of the fifteenth century edifice. The pedestrianised streets that radiate from the Rynek are predominantly filled with colourful Renaissance townhouses and mansions. Dozens of churches, usually with Gothic or Romanesque framework but Baroque facades and interior decorative details, are scattered throughout the old town. Despite the tourist crowds, the old town has not been excessively commercialised and therefore retained its Old World charm and authenticity, unlike the Disneyland-esque atmosphere of Venice and Prague.

Main square

Main square

The wall that once ringed the old town of Krakow was mostly demolished in the nineteenth century when it became obsolete due to modern weaponry. Usually the loss of such a historic structure would be quite tragic, but clever urban planning repurposed the area into parkland. Consequently, the old town is surrounded by an atmospheric greenbelt that functions as a barrier between the pedestrianised, spiritual centre of Krakow and the working modern districts of the city. A small section of the fortifications were preserved on the northern side of the old town, including a prominent gateway dating to 1300 and Krakow’s iconic barbican. An intriguing component of medieval defence systems, barbicans were heavily fortified strongholds located outside the city walls and were designed to protect the approach to the most important gateway. Krakow’s imposing barbican is a circular brick structure that once connected to Florian’s Gate by an enclosed brick passageway over a moat. Outsiders attempting to enter Krakow were required to pass through the barbican first before the gateway. The purpose of the barbican was to allow defenders to shoot enemies attacking the wall from an external position, thereby providing a 360 degree shooting range. Needless to say, Andrew (over) enthusiastically pretended he was a medieval soldier and shot imaginary arrows from the countless turrets and arrow slits. None hit their target.

Barbican

Barbican

Rising high above the old town’s southern flank is seemingly Krakow’s only prominent hill. Unsurprisingly, the glorious royal seat of Wawel Castle occupies its plateau. The castle was the residence of Polish kings for more than five hundred years and even after the capital relocated to Warsaw, it remained the site of coronations and burials. Consequently, it never lost its powerful status as the symbol of the nation. Disappointingly though, the palace that dominates Wawel Castle was constructed in Renaissance style and is thus indistinguishable from other European palaces (not a tremendous deal of originality in this field). We toured the State Rooms and found them somewhat bare and monotonous in comparison to the lavish rooms of Warsaw’s Royal Castle. The ornately decorated Wawel Cathedral, the resting place of Polish monarchs and leaders, is easily the most impressive edifice on the hill. The cathedral appears to have developed in an organic manner because of its myriad of architectural styles and mismatched towers and domes. Wawel Hill descends on the southern side to the Vistula River, which permits magnificent views from afar. Intriguingly, both Warsaw and Krakow neglect to exploit the rivers that bisect them as places of leisure and entertainment as elsewhere in Europe.

Wawel Castle

Wawel Castle

The majority of Krakow’s eradicated Jewish population resided in Kazimierz, a district immediately south-east of Wawel Castle. Kazimierz was originally an independent town established in the fourteenth century by its eponymous king and swiftly became a key regional trading centre. Kazimierz featured two distinctive communities that lived in separate quarters: Christians in the west and Jews in the east. As Polish kings guaranteed the protection of Jewish subjects, Jews migrated into Kazimierz from other European countries to escape persecution. The Nazis however destroyed the Jewish community, rendering Kazimierz into a ghostly neighbourhood sapped of the energy prevalent in the old town of Krakow. The architecture of Kazimierz is impressively old, though somewhat grim and lifeless. Numerous synagogues are located in Kazimierz, miraculously surviving the insanity and barbarism of World War Two. Andrew and I visited the Old Synagogue, a fifteenth century Renaissance-style building converted into a museum. We also visited Schindler’s Factory on the opposite side of the Vistula, which features an excellent museum detailing the Nazi occupation of Krakow and the antiheroic story of Oskar Schindler.

Old Synagogue

Old Synagogue

Forty kilometres west of Krakow in the quiet town of Oswiecim is the site of one of history’s most despicable atrocities. Internationally recognised by its German name Auschwitz, the town harbours three concentration camps established by the Nazis for the systematic extermination of 1.5 million innocent civilians, most of whom were Jewish. A visit to Auschwitz is of course extremely disturbing, but necessary to pay respect to the incomprehensible number of people murdered there. Auschwitz originally consisted of one camp, but as the scale of maddening destruction intensified, further camps were constructed. The rows of grim buildings at the central camp now consists of museums that detail the operations at Auschwitz and harrowing displays indicative of the number of civilians murdered. A hall with hundreds of thousands of shoes and another with mountains of human hair were for me the most traumatic. The Nazis collected the garments, teeth and hair of their victims, presumably for recycling purposes. The Nazis thus regarded a Jew as nothing more than a commodity that was exploitable only after death. One vaguely pleasant quality of Auschwitz is that numerous European countries have contributed to the memory of the victims by presenting exhibitions about the Holocaust in their country. Jews were transported to Auschwitz for their liquidation from cities throughout Europe. The much larger concentration camp of Birkenau forcefully conveys the scale of horror conducted by the Nazis. Countless rows of buildings at Birkenau were once either the residences of slaves and prisoners of war or functioned as gas chambers. At the height of the Holocaust in 1942-43, Jews were transported by train to Birkenau and were dead almost immediately after arriving. Nazi physicians picked out Jews fit for labour or medical experimentations, while the rest were to be terminated. The Nazis manipulated the masses into believing they were queuing for showers before their internment, but they were actually lining up for their deaths in the gas chambers. The carnage inflicted by the Nazis on humanity and civilisation is completely unfathomable. A visit to Auschwitz surely emphasises that war is absolutely justified when a regime is so diabolical that their total eradication is necessary.

Auschwitz I

Auschwitz I

I will now transition somewhat inappropriately to my regular and rather frivolous discussions about food. Andrew and I maintained our gluttonous diet from Warsaw and continued to revel in the delights of Polish cuisine. On the “milk bar” scene, I sampled more “ruskie” pierogi (dumplings stuffed with cheese and onion), plum dumplings (plums wrapped in dough, fried and served with brown sugar), mouth-watering crispy pancakes stuffed with sweet cheese and my favourite Polish soup, cucumber soup. Sour, thick and surprisingly delectable, cucumber soup is made from chunks of gherkins, other vegetables and cream. On virtually every corner of Krakow’s old town are carts that sell Obwarzanski, a chewy large pretzel coated in sesame seeds, poppy seeds or salt crystals. Despite perpetual criticisms regarding their blandness, every time I turned to Andrew he seemed to have another Obwarzanski in hand. Another street-food favourite of Andrew’s (you guessed correctly… it features dough!) was zapiekanka. A specialty of Krakow, zapiekankas consist of half a baguette grilled with sautéed mushrooms, onion and cheese. Once cooked, the toastie is topped with a variety of toppings such as salami, fresh tomato, chives and spicy sauce. Hot jam donuts are incredibly popular in Krakow and are filled with custard, chocolate or rose syrup (especially delicious). Probably my favourite dish from Krakow was potato pancakes smothered in goulash sauce. The potato pancakes were savoury, thick and crispy and complemented perfectly by the rich paprika based sauce. Andrew and I discovered a Polish-style pub and enjoyed our last two dinners in Krakow at the venue. On the first night, I had a plate of fried meat dumplings and humungous cabbage rolls stuffed with pork and rice and smothered in “farmer’s sauce” (tomato and vegetables). On the second night, I had goulash in a bread bowl and pork fillet fried in batter and served with mash, vegetables and more farmer’s sauce.

Cabbage rolls

Cabbage rolls

Andrew and I travelled to Poland on a quest to find the ultimate cheesecake. Regretfully and despite daily (sometimes hourly) samplings, we failed to discover a WOW-factor rendition of this extraordinary dessert in its homeland. Nevertheless, we did encounter cheesecake in many guises and were obliged to try all. Plain baked cheesecake, cheesecake with peach, cheesecake with jellied strawberries, cheesecake with sultans imbedded into its creamy goodness, chocolate cheesecake and cheesecake with a lattice of pastry over the top were ubiquitous styles. The most delicious dessert I ate in Poland was actually not cheesecake, but an intoxicatingly rich cake layered with chocolate sponge, chocolate mousse, biscuit, chestnuts and cream.

When you can't decide... just have both!

When you can't decide... just have both!

Contrastingly, Andrew encountered a dessert he failed to enjoy, a concept I was previously unaware was possible. At one point in Poland, Andrew ludicrously claimed he is not a “sweet-tooth” – which is probably the most outrageous statement every uttered by mankind. In Krakow, our traditional endeavour to break our fast at a milk bar one was stymied by its hipster and trendy atmosphere (rendering it completely unsuitable). My extreme disappoint was juxtaposed by Andrew’s sense of opportunism. With alarming enthusiasm, Andrew suggested we visit a bakery and gorge on cake for breakfast. I reluctantly agreed to placate his eagerness. Upon entering a bakery, Andrew immediately blurted, “Wow! Look at that Napoleon cake!” I (correctly) surmised that the cake appeared to be just a pile of sugar six inches high. However, the pastry’s kaleidoscope of colours proved irresistible for Andrew. He purchased a Napoleon cake and with boundless anticipation verging on insanity gleaming from his eyes, he bit into the monstrous pastry. With his face smothered in a blue substance similar to meringue and cream, Andrew expressed his delight. After three bites though, he was comprehensively over the pastry that tasted somewhat like sherbet lollies. Andrew was then required to persevere and consume another fifty bites. Feeling incredibly nauseous by the end, Andrew learnt a valuable lesson not to eat cake for breakfast. He blamed the ordeal on his so-called “Andrew’s bad luck day” (which included entering the women’s lavatories and subsequently being chased out by a female janitor), but I prefer to classify it as “Andrew’s bad decision day”.

Andrew eating the Napoleon cake

Andrew eating the Napoleon cake

After five nights in Krakow, unfortunately my short trip to Poland was over. My itinerary in the country was somewhat limited by the minor but irritating issue of needing to attend an exam in Stockholm. Nevertheless, I enjoyed sufficient time to explore Krakow properly. Loyal Globo Trip readers may recall the “Liam’s favourite cities in Europe” list that ranked, through progressive updates, my favourite cities on the continent. Krakow would definitely challenge for a top ten entry.

Andrew and I also parted ways after twelve amiable days of travel, as he continued his Euro trip west to Prague and Berlin. I am very grateful that Andrew spontaneously decided to visit Europe, join me in Poland and embrace my innumerable eating suggestions without objection! We had lots of laughter together… usually at the expense of the dour and unhelpful Poles! Hopefully we’ll have another foreign adventure in the future.

Andrew eating a zapiekankas

Andrew eating a zapiekankas

That’s all for now,

Liam

Poland photos

Posted by Liamps 23:41 Archived in Poland Comments (0)

Warsaw

Poland photos

With a one week break between classes and an exam, I decided to exploit insanely cheap airfares and travel to Poland. I persuaded Australian Andrew to join me for an eight day trip to the country, splitting time between the capital Warsaw and the ancient capital Krakow. Andrew proved to be an acceptable travel companion; although his tendencies to sing “I’m a barbie girl” down the grim streets of Poland and converse in his bellowing voice (irritating several grumpy old Polish men) were mildly embarrassing. Disaster struck on our first day in Poland as incessant light drizzle revealed the horrendous state of my beloved hiking shoes, resulting in their unfortunate but necessary disposal. Despite this initial trauma, I was thoroughly impressed by both Warsaw and Krakow; enthralling destinations for architecture, history and cuisine. I was also besotted by Poland’s incredibly cheap prices that permitted me to consume four meals a day (and compensate for the previous ten weeks in Scandinavia). I intended to supplement sightseeing and eating with intense preparation for my exam, though needless to say this objective failed dismally (though not my performance in said exam). Responsibility for this outcome should be directed to the distracting influences of my travel companion.

Andrew being embarrassing

Andrew being embarrassing

Andrew and I quickly surmised that the Polish population is composed of two types of people: the grouchy and the bubbly. We also concluded that the division is linked inextricably with age. Those above the age of thirty are generally cold, blunt and rude, and they often become excessively annoyed when a request or question is directed their way. The tantrum one milk bar lady threw when I attempted to pay on credit card was something to behold. By contrast, the younger generation are exceptionally sociable and also quite eccentric in their mannerisms. Every youthful worker we encountered were happily receptive to our questions and very helpful… with the exception of a woman in Warsaw’s tourist information centre. I asked her my standard question in Poland, “Can you recommend a place that sells amazing cheesecake and isn’t a tourist trap?!” Her expression reeked of bemusement, which did not bode well for my cheesecake hunt. She responded with venomous sarcasm, “Do you think I’ve tried every cheesecake in Warsaw?!” Geez, quality customer service. And yes, I do expect the tourist information centre in the capital of Cheesecakeland to know where to find the best cake in the city (she did eventually recommend two cafes on the main square, though they were inevitably tourist traps). In reflection, I suppose the general friendliness of Poland’s youth and the frostiness of the not-so-youthful is not too dissimilar to our own society.

The tragic history of Poland is a product of its unfortunate location sandwiched between two of Europe’s most powerful countries, Germany and Russia. When Prussia (Germany) and Russia developed into nation-states and great powers in the mid-eighteen century, Poland was effectively condemned to two hundred years of domination, servitude and horror. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, formed in the Middle Ages to counteract the Germanic Teutonic Order on the Baltic Sea, was once Europe’s largest state; but it was erased from the maps in the late eighteenth century and partitioned between the monarchs of Prussia, Russia and Austria. The Prussians and Russians attempted to repress Polish language and culture in their respective domains and Germanise or Russianise the populaces. An independent Polish nation was finally achieved at the conclusion of World War One, though it was infamously short-lived.

Hitler’s invasion of Poland in 1939 initiated the most cataclysmic conflict in human history and resulted in the “Third Partition” of Poland between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Hitler desired Polish lands for German “living space” and intended to decimate the population (Slavs were considered sub-human) through starvation and enslavement. The Soviet occupation was equally despicable, with 350,000 to 1,500,000 innocent civilians deported to Gulags in Siberia because they were deemed threats to Bolshevism. Stalin directly authorised the systematic execution of 22,000 Polish nationals (Katyn Forest massacre), mostly military officers and intelligentsia, which the Soviet government refused to acknowledge responsibility for until 1990. The Polish armed forces fled to Western Europe and fought with the Allies for the duration of the war. Yet despite Poland’s defence agreement with Great Britain and France triggering World War Two, Western Allied forces never substantially aided the Polish cause for independence; perhaps the cruellest irony of the war. Hitler’s surprise attack on the Soviet Union, Operation Barbarossa, resulted in the full occupation of Poland by Nazi Germany. Polish cities, monuments and communities were devastated by the Red Army’s eventual advance through Central and Eastern Europe, which resulted in the ostensible “liberation” of Poland in 1945.

Andrew in the Warsaw Uprising Museum

Andrew in the Warsaw Uprising Museum

Warsaw, or Warszawa (Var-sha-va: pronounced with a deep, menacing Eastern European voice) was established as the royal capital in 1596 and has remained the epicentre of Polish society ever since. The city’s old town is effectively a replica of the original, after the painstaking efforts to rebuild in the decades after World War Two. The old town of Warsaw was completely destroyed by the Nazis in retaliation to the Warsaw Uprising of August, 1944; a remarkable story presented in the excellent Warsaw Uprising Museum. Underground forces seized Warsaw from the Nazis to establish Polish authority in the city before the arrival of the Red Army, which had advanced to the suburban outskirts. The rebels anticipated Allied support but it failed to materialise, exposing Warsaw to Hitler’s vindictive edict to utterly annihilate the city. All but 15% of buildings were decimated and Warsaw became totally uninhabitable by the end of the war. The subsequent architectural restoration of Warsaw’s old town earned the city World Heritage status. Although the relative newness of the old town is easily discernible from the paint and lack of dilapidation, the area is still exceptionally beautiful and evocative of previous epochs in European history. The old town is predominately composed of tall Renaissance and Baroque structures, a smattering of historic churches, cobblestone pedestrianised streets and a splendid central square. I found it quite mindboggling how the old town was so successfully rebuilt: how did they know exact proportions of buildings, architectural features and interior decorative details? Perhaps a degree of guesswork was required.

Entirely rebuilt

Entirely rebuilt

The Royal Castle is perhaps the most venerated structure in the country, emblematic of an independent and proud Poland. The Nazis intended to destroy the castle from the beginning of the war to break the spirits of the Polish people. After decades of neglect, the communist government finally authorised its reconstruction in the 1970s using donations collected from people throughout Poland. Perhaps because of this, the Royal Castle is one of the few palatial complexes I have been to in Europe where photography is permitted and entrance is free. Consequently, it easily ranks among my favourites because my memory of its appearance is considerably better than others! The rooms visited on the “Castle Tour” are of course lavishly decorated, which in my opinion render them uncomfortable and entirely unliveable. The aesthetics of the throne room is dominated by the white eagle on red, the symbol of Poland.

The Emperor inside the Royal Castle

The Emperor inside the Royal Castle

The Nazis orchestrated the ultimate shame of Western civilisation, the Holocaust, predominantly within Poland, because of its isolation from worldview. Three million Polish Jews were exterminated, along with millions of other European Jews transported to concentration camps within Poland. The Museum of the History of Polish Jews was recently completed to commemorate the travesty and is one of the best museums I have ever been to. Poland was historically the most tolerant country of Jews in Europe, granting them protections and rights unthinkable in other parts of Christendom. Consequently, Poland was home to easily the largest Jewish population on the continent from the Middle Ages, composing roughly 10% of the population. Prior to the Nazi invasion, Warsaw possessed the world’s second biggest Jewish community (after New York) of 380,000. The Nazis crammed the entire community into two city districts and surrounded it with a brick wall, creating the Warsaw Ghetto (or hell). Roughly a quarter of the community died from starvation and disease epidemics. In the summer of 1942, most inhabitants were deported to Treblinka for their liquidation (is there a more appalling word in the English language?). The remaining 50,000 rose up in 1943 in a final act of defiance, but were ultimately crushed. In the aftermath of the war, Polish society directed minimal sympathy to the few that survived, resulting in their emigration. Only after the collapse of communism has the government and society suitably recognised the horrific destruction of the Polish Jewry, formerly an integral part of the nation.

While the Western powers celebrated the conclusion of the war and securement of freedom, Poland found itself undesirably within the Soviet sphere of influence. The Western powers permitted Stalin to formerly annex territories acquired from Poland in 1939 and institute a puppet communist government within Poland’s redrawn borders. Aside from the old town, the city of Warsaw was rebuilt according to contemporary Soviet architectural design principles: vast (impersonal) boulevards, functionalist (characterless) buildings and gigantic (hideous) monuments. The Soviet Union bestowed upon Warsaw a “gift” to the Polish people, the Palace of Culture and Science. The building is a neoclassical skyscraper, a typology often employed in Stalinist Eastern Europe but seldom seen in the West. Varsovians loathe the building (probably for its association with communism) and claim that the best view of Warsaw is from the summit because it’s the only view it doesn’t spoil. Despite their antipathy, I actually quite like the building for its unique grandiosity in the form of a skyscraper.

Palace of Culture and Science

Palace of Culture and Science

After four decades of impoverishment and powerlessness, the scourge of communism was finally lifted from Poland in the 1989 revolutions that swept Central and Eastern Europe. Genuine independence was restored and Poland has since enjoyed prodigious economic growth as a market-oriented liberal democracy. Capitalist shopping malls and steel-and-glass skyscrapers have now bloomed and enlivened the bleak ugliness of communist urban planning. The cultural hub of modern Warsaw is the cosmopolitan districts south of the old town, where boutique shops, restaurants and bars occupy restored or rebuilt nineteenth century buildings.

Polish cuisine is incredibly cheap, voluminous and delicious, so I vigorously sought to compensate for eight weeks of relative frugality in Stockholm. Communist-era “milk bars” were our favourite establishments to sample traditional Polish fare and experience trademark Polish hospitality for breakfast. We were routinely greeted with sour expressions from irritable old ladies who became increasingly frustrated with the slow, nonsensical orders of two English speakers. On one occasion, we discovered a hipster milk bar and deemed it entirely inappropriate because we would probably have encountered friendly customer service. For my first Polish breakfast, I enjoyed a delicious bowl of zurek, a sour soup made from rye bread and vegetables, and a plate of crispy pancakes filled with cheese. Next morning I devoured a kielbasa (Polish sausage) and a serving of bigos. Bigos, or “hunter’s stew”, is Poland’s national dish and consists of sauerkraut and onion slow-cooked over a seven day period with sausage and a variety of available meats. Andrew found the dish rather unpalatable, but I quite enjoyed its bold flavours. On our final morning in Warsaw, I ate a pork “cutlet” (spiced minced pork rolled into a ball, coated in breadcrumbs and fried: therefore similar to a croquette) and a bizarre but reasonably pleasant plate of sticky rice served with sour cream, sugar and stewed apple (a slightly random order from the Polish language menu).

Bigos

Bigos



Andrew and I comparatively splurged on our evening meals with feasts at restaurants of gradually increasing star quality. We celebrated our arrival in Poland by gorging on dozens of pierogis, or Polish dumplings. We ordered cheese and potato pierogi, meat pierogi and wild mushroom pierogi and doused them with cheese sauce, sour cream and fried lard. I also developed a love for Polish beer at this meal (note I don’t normally drink beer), as well as the associated cost. On the subsequent evening, I dined on a humungous tasting plate of beef tartare (raw beef) with onion and gherkins, pate, smoked salmon and spinach roulade and egg salad… for entrée. For main course, I rather gluttonously consumed half a duck with roast potatoes, apples and cranberry sauce. On our third evening, we visited Warsaw’s premium restaurant serving traditional food and were seated at a table with matching thrones. We hoed into a delicious dip with flecks of bacon for appetizer, along with fantastic gherkins and freshly baked bread. I enquired to the waiter what the dip was, to which he responded bluntly, “lard”. Suddenly the appetizer became somewhat less appetising. For entrée, I had cabbage rolls stuffed with meat and rice and covered in a capsicum-based sauce. For main, I had roast wild boar (much richer and darker coloured than pork) with a rich gravy featuring juniper berries accompanied by shredded beetroot and gnocchi-sized dumplings: a WOW-factor dish.

Wild boar

Wild boar

I have to admit, I travelled to Warsaw with rather low expectations for a major European capital city, as Krakow was the primary appeal for my trip to Poland. However, I now believe that Warsaw firmly belongs on Europe’s “must-see” list. Warsaw is somewhat similar to Berlin; not particularly beautiful or visually inspiring, but one of the best places on the continent to discover the horrors of World War Two.

That’s all for now,

Liam

Poland photos

Posted by Liamps 22:14 Archived in Poland Comments (0)

Stockholm in October

Sweden photos

The tenth month of the sixteenth year of the third millennia will forever be remembered for possibly the greatest achievement in human history: the Hawthorn Football Club spectacularly winning a third consecutive AFL premiership. I obviously had no intention of missing the imperious Hawks fulfilling their destiny, despite my presence on the other side of the planet. On a crisp early morning after Octoberfest shenanigans, I powered through the desolate streets of Stockholm determined to reach the Irish pub broadcasting the big dance in time for the first bounce. Attending Grand Final events overseas is always a rather surreal experience, because quite suddenly you are surrounded by Aussies that speak the same lingo and actually understand this bizarre sport you repeatedly attempt to explain to foreigners (usually in response to insulting assumptions that all Aussies follow rugby). The Grand Final breakfast I attended was hosted by the local AFL competition, which consists of five teams with Australian and Swedish players alike. More than one hundred Australians attended the breakfast, including Sean’s former housemate Jonno (who I hadn’t seen in more than a decade) and his Swedish wife Jenny, both Hawks fans (though to varying degrees of passion). Needless to say, the morning was reasonably enjoyable… although I was slightly disappointed by the undercooked sautéed mushrooms. With the match concluding by 9:30am, I had ample time to watch the reply during the day.

View from Sodermalm

View from Sodermalm

The other particularly significant event to occur in early October was Australian Andrew’s visitation. After our brief meeting in London, Andrew had subsequently travelled to Bath, Cambridge, Nottingham, York and Edinburgh. When we met at Stockholm Central Station, he was brimming with enthusiasm about his recent exploits, while I was eager to discuss the calamitous Couchsurfing ordeal from the previous weekend. Andrew stayed in my tiny apartment for four nights as he explored the city, which he previously visited during an epic multi-continental trip as a child. I occasionally provided tour guiding services, although I was mostly preoccupied with mundane study.

Andrew in Stockholm

Andrew in Stockholm

Fortunately, I had a full day free from classes that enabled me to show Andrew around my temporary home town. Our first destination was the Stockholm Public Library, which is one of the city’s most iconic attractions. The modernist building, designed by Gunnar Asplund, consists of classical architectural elements reduced to abstract geometrical forms. As we ambled toward the centre of Stockholm via the main thoroughfare in the city’s north, Sveavägen, we spotted a most unusual sight: a man roller skiing. I have since witnessed people roller skiing with increasing regularity as the Swedish winter nears. I introduced Andrew to Swedish fare at one of my regular lunch spots, a restaurant inside the city’s prestigious indoor market Saluhall. The restaurant rotates its lunch specials daily and fortunately there was a cracking dish was on the menu when we attended. I enjoyed delectably tender and salty pork with a luxuriant mash of root vegetables and perfectly balanced mustard sauce. Admittedly, I don’t remember how the pork was cooked; I just remember the dish was the only proper WOW-factor culinary experience thus far in Stockholm.

Pork with root vegetables mash and mustard sauce

Pork with root vegetables mash and mustard sauce

I thoughtfully saved visiting Stockholm’s famed Vasa Museum until Andrew arrived, as I was certain he would want to attend this extraordinary institution of naval history. The museum consists of the only fully-intact seventeenth century ship that has ever been salvaged, the 64-gun warship the Vasa. However, my impressions of the ship were slightly blighted by the information pamphlet declaring the Vasa as one of the foremost touristic attractions in the world; a blatantly exaggerated assertion (as you all know, I’m vehemently opposed to exaggeration and would never dabble in such a concept in my writing). The Vasa was commissioned in the 1620s by the Swedish king, as part of his ambitious military expansion of the kingdom. Upon its completion, it was one of the most powerfully armed battleships in history. However, the ship was compromised by poor design: the upper structure was dangerously heavy, while at the bottom there was insufficient space for counterweights to balance the ship. Eager to see his flagship sail, the king nevertheless ordered the Vasa’s maiden voyage in 1628 while he was at war in Poland. After just 1,300 metres from its departure point, the Vasa sunk from a minor wind. Over the centuries, the exact location of the Vasa was lost from memory. In 1956, amateur archaeologist Anders Franzen discovered a large object in the waters of Stockholm Harbour, which proved to be the Vasa. The ship was recovered by constructing six tunnels through the clay bed for steel cable slings, which were connected to pontoons on the water surface. The Vasa was in excellent condition 333 years after it sunk, partly because the highly polluted waters of Stockholm Harbour (until recent decades) that it occupied prevented the proliferation of wood-consuming microorganisms. Since its exposure to air, the Vasa’s conservation has continued to be challenging. It is regularly treated with chemicals to prevent its decay, though the ship will eventually degrade completely in the future.

The Vasa

The Vasa

I concluded the first “period” of my studies at KTH University in mid-October. I decided to exploit the subsequent ten day interval before my first exam to travel to Poland with Andrew. The Norse gods perhaps condemned this recklessness, because Stockholm was covered with thick fog on the day of our flight, resulting in a four hour delay. I departed Stockholm knowing that when I returned, the city would be much colder and a whole lot darker.

That’s all for now,

Liam

Sweden photos

Posted by Liamps 11:07 Archived in Sweden Comments (0)

London III

United Kingdom photos

To live for a semester only two hours by plane from London of course compelled me to return to the world’s greatest city. Yes, London has indeed retained its coveted status as my favourite city, despite the robust challenge mounted by New York. The differentiating element that London boasts is a sense of homeliness to an Australian, despite its entirely foreign geographic context relative to Melbourne. On both occasions I have visited London, I have been struck by the intangible feeling of belonging; no doubt similarly experienced by the hundreds of thousands of Australians that reside in the “Home Nations”. To me, London is therefore a unique mixture of exoticism and familiarity; potentially the ideal place to live. London was my first “reprieve” from Scandinavian society in more than six weeks and I thoroughly enjoyed a break from Scandinavian orderliness, perfection and subduedness. The incredibly diverse composition of London ethnically, culturally and socio-economically contrasts with the assimilated and therefore slightly monotonous society of Stockholm. Its this aspect of London, where communities preserve vibrant and independent identities but coexist harmoniously, that I find particularly appealing.

River Thames

River Thames

I travelled to London partly to rendezvous with British Dave, who astute readers will recall was my highly eccentric, rather hilarious and regularly intoxicated tent partner in Southern Africa. Dave visited several members of that overlanding tour in Australia earlier this year, so I was somewhat returning the favour. I was also exploiting the opportunity to stay in a magnificent location in London. Perhaps I’m being slightly facetious, for Dave’s beloved hometown of Watford is literally on the periphery of Greater London. Still, Watford is an amiable community with a medieval Gothic church and it memorably sated my craving for sausage rolls with tomato sauce (for those who wonder if I miss anything from Australia when I travel, well that’s it!). I also acquired my winter clothes for Stockholm at the ultra-cheap department store of Primark. I was preparing to spend more than 100 pounds on a jacket in London, but I exited the (widely derided) store triumphant for the loss of just 25 pounds! Despite its dubious quality, the jacket suffices currently in minus six degrees temperatures in Stockholm, so I’m marking that purchase as an unexpected success!

Dave at Windsor Castle

Dave at Windsor Castle

While Dave attended a reunion with his former Oxford chums, I enjoyed a reunion with Australian Andrew who was commencing his Euro trip in London on unintentionally the same weekend I was visiting the city. Andrew decided to travel to Europe ostensibly to visit me and another friend studying on exchange in Nottingham, though no doubt we were simply used as excuses. We met on the steps of the British Museum, where Andrew had spent a cultural morning exploring various artefacts from Near Eastern antiquity to Far Eastern anime. Unsurprisingly, my mind was purely focused on food and I quickly coerced Andrew into ambling towards my favourite part of my favourite city: Camden Market. This sprawling and ubiquitously crowded district to the north of Central London is the city’s premium alternative scene. It boasts an amazing food section with dozens of stalls selling delectable dishes from countries throughout the world, many of which are under represented on the international culinary scene. Andrew and I ploughed through huge servings of Ethiopian fare with several curries, injera bread and hummus. Since I was finally in a country with reasonably priced fruit and vegetables, I also loaded up on some of the best fresh figs I’ve ever eaten. We next walked along the beautiful Regent’s Canal, which travels for 14 kilometres through the north of London. It was a perfect activity to soak up the bright autumn weather and discuss the social developments I have missed while overseas. We passed Regent’s Park, London Zoo and clusters of houseboats and their accompanying gardens. We then passed through an Arabic neighbourhood replete with kebab houses, shisha and sweet shops, which gave me goose-bumps in memory of the exhilarating atmosphere of North African and Middle Eastern cities. In the late afternoon, we completed a whirlwind tour of London’s most iconic sites: Hyde Park, Mayfair, the Australian War Memorial, Buckingham Palace, Horseguards Parade, Westminster Abbey, the Palace of Westminster and the River Thames. We concluded the day with a traditional pub meal at and establishment founded in the seventeenth century. It was quite an atmospheric old pub, with numerous small rooms connected with low doorways. Unfortunately, Andrew’s liver condition precluded him from enjoying an alcoholic beverage, a restriction that would continue to haunt him during our forthcoming jaunt through Poland.

Andrew searching for spiders at the houseboats

Andrew searching for spiders at the houseboats

Dave was in a surprisingly sober condition for noon on a Sunday when we met after his trip to Oxford. His parents generously invited me to an English Sunday roast lunch at the family house in the countryside just outside London. The approach to the village was on a narrow “two-lane” road bordered by hedges; the first occasion I have seen the quintessential rural English thoroughfare. I particularly enjoyed eating roast lamb, which is more of a luxury meat than a staple outside Australia, New Zealand and select few other countries (Australia consumes more tonnes of lamb (total) annually than the United States, despite possessing 15 times less consumers). In the afternoon, we ventured to the nearby town of Windsor, where the Queen’s favourite residence is located. Windsor Castle was originally constructed in the eleventh century and is now the longest occupied palace in Europe. The colossal castle rises commandingly above the quaint village of Windsor and the picturesque countryside surrounding the town. Its ancient yet intricately detailed Gothic architecture is immeasurably more impressive than Buckingham Palace, which is essentially just a generic European neoclassical palace. The interior was also quiet striking, with the use of swords and other weapons to form geometric decorative elements. In the late afternoon, we had high tea to round out a thoroughly traditional English Sunday.

Windsor Castle

Windsor Castle

Dave organised a day off from work on Monday, which he perhaps later regretted as I dragged him all around Central London (he was not terribly accustomed to my hectic schedules while travelling). We first visited the National Portrait Gallery on Trafalgar Square, which was reasonably enjoyable though we quickly hastened thereafter to a pub. I was keen to attend several old-school pubs while in London, rather than the generic chains that blight the city’s entertainment scene (i.e. Weatherspoon’s). At one of Covent Garden’s most iconic traditional pub, I devoured pie and chips and savoured proper apple cider (only the ultra-sweet rubbish is sold in Sweden). We next walked to the bustling shopping thorough of Oxford St to visit the upmarket department store Selfridges, which was rather underwhelming. After another pub visit, Dave departed in the late afternoon for his regular yoga class. I walked hastily along the Thames from St. Paul’s Cathedral to the Tower of London to meet Andrew, who had recovered from an unidentified bite to the foot. I happened to pass a student from a first semester class in Melbourne, though didn’t have time to stop and analyse the extraordinary coincidence. The mind-blowingly impressive London weather reached its crescendo at sunset precisely when Tower Bridge was being raised, with the sky lit up brightly in shades of pink and purple. Andrew and I ambled to Brick Lane, where Dave met us for an Indian feast.

Tower Bridge

Tower Bridge

A rather short trip to London of only three days concluded all too quickly. My second visit to the city confirmed that London is absolutely a place I would like to live in the future. It was fantastic to catch up with Dave and Andrew, the latter I whom I would soon see on my doorstep in Stockholm.

That’s all for now,

Liam

United Kingdom photos

Posted by Liamps 08:01 Archived in United Kingdom Comments (0)

Gotland

Sweden photos

Situated roughly halfway between Sweden and Latvia in the Baltic Sea is Gotland. The island boasts more sunlight annually than any other part of the country and is consequently Sweden’s most popular summer destination. The island is renowned for its pleasant countryside and beautiful beaches. Gotland is accessible from Stockholm by a three hour ferry trip, so I decided to spend a weekend on the island despite tourist season concluding in early September. I stayed in World Heritage listed Visby, Scandinavia’s best preserved medieval old town and a former member of the Hanseatic League.

Main square in Visby

Main square in Visby

Stress, anxiety and a touch of fear characterised my first two hours on Gotland. I arrived by ferry at about 11:30pm and walked towards the address of my Couchsurfing host. Earlier in the week, I had some apprehension about the reliability of rocking up at this time. However, my host had emphatically asserted it would be completely fine since I would arrive on a Friday night. I should have trusted my initial instincts. After a twenty five minute walk in the cold, I reached the correct apartment blocks. Eager to escape the minus two degrees Celsius temperature (an unusually cool night for October), I called the provided mobile number. No answer. With no doorbell, intercom or any means of gaining a resident’s attention (building locked at 9pm), I was required to call again. No answer. Next I messaged the host on Couchsurfing and text messaged. No responses. Needless to say, I was starting to become a little worried. Visby is a town of only 22,000 and most visitors come exclusively in the summer months. Consequently, I knew the town would be completely dead at midnight and I was also aware of the irritating penchant for hostels in Scandinavia to close their receptions at around 6pm (usually 24 hours worldwide). So I waited and called again. Still no answers. I managed to identify the name of the Couchsurfer’s roommate on the mailbox and find a mobile number online that matched the name and address. But the recipient of my phone call claimed I had the wrong number. With a touch of paranoia after thirty minutes of standing in the cold, I concluded that I was being stitched up and needed to find alternative accommodation as soon as possible. I looked up the town’s hostel’s phone number for “urgent” situations and called it, though at 12:30am I had minimal hope that someone would answer. To my eternal gratitude, my call was warmly received and my inquiry about the vacancy incurred a positive response (probably because it was (very) low season). By 1:00am, I arrived at the hostel with boundless relief and no concerns about the cost. Although I was staying in a converted prison and didn’t actually encounter anyone when I entered (keys were placed in an envelope), at least I was warm! The Couchsurfing host eventually messaged me at 4:00am claiming to have forgotten their phone in the kitchen. A few curt messages were sent the next morning as I dodged the host’s efforts to meet.

My lodging in Visby

My lodging in Visby

Visby was the constituent centre of the Hanseatic League in the Baltic Sea for more than two hundred years. The Hanseatic League was a confederation of medieval merchant guilds and market towns that dominated maritime trade in Northern Europe. The League was designed to protect the economic interests of its member cities and ensure their defence through mutual aid. The League was predominantly composed of German members. The architecture and culture of Visby was heavily influenced by the Hanseatic League and consequently the old town is much more Germanic than Nordic in appearance. Nevertheless, Visby was conquered by the Danes at the end of the fourteenth century and has remained a part of either the Danish or Swedish realms for more than six hundred years since.

Town walls

Town walls

The old town of Visby is probably the most impressive historic core in Scandinavia. Few medieval structures survive in cities throughout the Nordic countries; yet in Visby, the iconic fortified ramparts and hundreds of former warehouses and dwellings date to this period. The old town is situated directly beside the Baltic Sea, a testament to its maritime character. The old town is surrounded by a remarkably preserved medieval defensive wall replete with dozens of towers, each with individualised designs. The cobblestone streets inside the walls are mostly pedestrianised and meander through the town in an illogical manner. The old town is composed of large multi-storeyed residences with prominent terracotta roofs and colourful facades. Scattered throughout the old town are the ruins of more than a dozen medieval churches that were burnt down in the sixteenth century. Their skeletal and ghostly remains are the architectural tombstones of the city’s long history. Many quiet streets of Visby are enlivened by colourful facades and lush gardens.

Hanseatic town of Visby

Hanseatic town of Visby

Unfortunately, the lack of private wheels and the restrictive bus schedule conspired against my exploration of Gotland’s countryside. I therefore missed visiting the island’s northern beaches, which are scattered with thousands of mysterious rock stacks. However, I did walk ten kilometres south of Visby to at least sample what the Gotlandic coast has to offer. This enabled me to enjoy the autumnal leaves of mid-October in Sweden, with hues of gold, orange and red dominant. I have quite enjoyed watching the stages of nature’s transform throughout the autumn in Northern Europe. I ventured to a point named Hogklint, which provided excellent views of the surrounding landscape and Visby in the distance. Hogklint also features beautiful chalk white cliffs, which contrasted with the blackness of the Baltic Sea and the multi-coloured entanglement of the forest above.

Hogklint

Hogklint

The iconic dish of Gotland is Saffronpannkaka, or saffron pancakes. Despite the name, saffronpannkaka is actually saffron and rice pudding mixed with cream and baked in the oven. Slices of the vibrant yellow pudding are served with dewberry (similar to a blackberry) jam and whipped cream. Reasonably tasty, but not a dessert I would bother ordering again. Gotland is famous throughout Sweden for its seafood and high-quality lamb. At a quirky fish restaurant on the main square, I enjoyed the best pickled herring I have tasted in Scandinavia. The herring was presumably fried in breadcrumbs before its pickling with onions, carrots and capers. The pickled mixture was served with melted butter, boiled potatoes, dill, parsley and aioli. At a café also on the main square, I enjoyed succulent lamb in a not-so-traditional tomato-based casserole.

Saffranpankaka

Saffranpankaka

In reflection, I think the anxiety of the first night seriously compromised my enjoyment of Visby. It put me in a depressive and irritable mood, though the lifeless October atmosphere hardly improved the situation. I suppose it was a reminder that travelling is not perpetually fun; you inevitably end up in unsavoury circumstances occasionally. Hardly life or death stuff, just annoying. To conclude, a trip to Gotland would be far more fulfilling in the summer months with a car!

Ruined medieval church

Ruined medieval church

That’s all for now,

Liam

Sweden photos

Posted by Liamps 01:20 Archived in Sweden Comments (0)

Bothnian Coast

Sweden photos

With an unexpected six day interval between classes in mid-September, I planned a trip along Sweden’s Bothnian coast, north of Stockholm (I obviously had no intentions of studying). The European students at KTH are rather bemused by this hedonistic lifestyle of weekly adventures, but other Australian students are also exploiting any opportunities to travel. Armenian Vahan and Honduran Daniel accompanied me for the first component of the trip to Hoga Kusten, which directly translates to the “High Coast”. Vahan and Daniel are also students at KTH and reside in the same apartment building as me on campus. Hoga Kusten is a geographically significant area in the north of Sweden because it is an example of post-glacial rebound. The icesheet that once covered the region melted thousands of years ago, which thus released the pressures applied to the surface and resulted in it rising. This coastline is the only mountainous part of the Baltic Sea, with sheer cliffs, canyons, small mountains, fjords and islands characterising the landscape. Within Hoga Kusten’s World Heritage listed domain is Skuleskogan National Park, the most pristine environment in the area and our target destination. We drove to Skuleskogan National Park on a Friday night and spent the weekend there. I subsequently travelled by train to the small city of Umea and the even smaller city of Luleå, just south of the Arctic Circle, before flying back to Stockholm.

DSC04606.jpg

After driving for five hours on the highway, we arrived at the national park at around eleven o’clock. We proceeded to the western entrance where we intended to camp and utilise the promised barbeques. We eventually located a deserted carpark and noted the conspicuous absence of camping facilities. We did at least discover a boardwalk leading 500 metres to a visitor information area replete with a bizarrely located fire pit. This wasn’t exactly the ideal circumstance for my torch to fail intermittently in the pitch black darkness of the isolated forest. Vahan and Daniel managed to establish a fire, while I attempted to appear productive by holding my wavering torch. Vahan cooked a delicious “Armenian barbeque” of pork fillets marinated in onions, herbs and spices and we ate at nearly one o’clock. It was probably the most unusual and slightly unsettling context I have ever dined in. We then returned to the warmth of the car and drove to the southern entrance, in the hope of locating a campsite. En route, a startled moose jumped onto the dirt road directly in front of the car, probably because it was startled by the headlights. The campsite at the southern entrance was located 1.5 kilometres from the carpark, requiring us to carry our loaded backpacks through the interminable darkness past two o’clock. It seemed our night would never end. We moved carefully through the damp forest on narrow boardwalks essentially consisting of split tree trunks with metal rods for grip. Finally, we reached a clearing and setup our tent on a moderately dry patch of sand. We crashed just after three o’clock.

The campsite

The campsite

The provision of light the next morning enabled us to survey the campsite’s position. Our tent was located beside a bay connected to the Baltic Sea and surrounded by forest with pine trees and lush undergrowth. We enjoyed a leisurely morning of hiking through the forests of Skuleskogan and along the coastline. The national park consists of an unusually high concentration of deciduous trees considering its northern location, which is reflective of a former warm climate. The mountains of Skuleskogan have protected the trees from arduous conditions and thereby ensured their survival. Consequently, the national park boasts a unique mix of deciduous and coniferous trees. When we visited in mid-September, the autumnal colours of the deciduous trees contrasted substantially with the evergreen of the coniferous trees. In the mid-afternoon, we ventured onto two islands connected to the mainland by a causeway and enjoyed magnificent views of Skuleskogan and the Baltic Sea. We sheltered from rain and the increasingly cool temperatures in a cosy cabin with a group of Lithuanians. With the rain subsiding, we departed the islands and ascended rocky slopes (hopefully) towards a campsite.

View of the islands

View of the islands

We eventually discovered the campsite amid thick grass and rocky platforms beside a black lake at 200m in altitude. A Swedish couple offered us to use a surprisingly unoccupied cabin there. Fear of an incredibly cold night conspired us to issue scant protest to their generosity and gratefully accept sleeping in the cabin while they camped outside! I decided to exploit the last hours of light for the day and ascend further for panoramic views of the lake and coast in the distance. I suddenly thought that my off-track hiking through knee-high shrubbery perhaps wasn’t such a clever idea, as I remembered Sean’s warnings about potentially fatal and incurable tick bites common in the Swedish wilderness. Anyways, the views were splendid from my isolated position as the sky fashioned pinks and purples at sunset. We spent the evening huddled around a fire and watched the embers surreally disperse across the lake.

Our cabin, far left

Our cabin, far left

After enjoying a much needed sleep-in, we proceeded to ascend the slopes of Skuleskogan for more spectacular views of the coastline and landscape. We hiked through the national park’s iconic narrow canyon, which consists of two sheer cliffs separated by about five metres. The final stretch of our hike consisted of ambling through wetlands and avoiding drenching our feet. We spent a couple of hours driving in the afternoon driving around Hoga Kusten and saw vibrant green pastures, tiny villages of red-and-white buildings, pink-granite beaches and calm bays.

Canyon in Skuleskogan

Canyon in Skuleskogan

While Vahan and Daniel returned to Stockholm, I decided to continue further north to the cities of Umeå and Luleå by train. Umeå is a medium-sized city situated on a river inland from the Gulf of Finland. The centre is mainly composed of drab buildings with a smattering of colourful, old wooden buildings. The waterfront is beautifully landscaped and features an assortment of iconic modernist structures beside the wide river. For those with astonishing memories from my blog, the river reminded me somewhat of Kampot, Cambodia! As you have probably deduced, Umeå is not a particularly enthralling destination for a tourist to visit. However, it seemed like an amiable city for residents (if you prefer living in communities of less than four million… so not me!) and I was still satisfied I visited to experience a contrasting Swedish city to Stockholm.

Wooden houses in Umeå

Wooden houses in Umeå

The train journey from Umeå to Luleå was incredibly beautiful as it passed through typical Swedish countryside blanketed in golden autumnal leaves. Sweden boasts more than three million lakes throughout its territory, so by both road and rail you seemingly travel past a new lake every five minutes. Sweden’s landscape is generally either flat or consisting of picturesque rolling hills. The train journey passed through extensive forests and farmland scattered with archetypal Swedish red-and-white buildings. Another notable aspect of the train journey was that half the passengers were Syrian refugees; the first time I had noticed them in Sweden. Along with Germany, Sweden is the most popular destination in Europe for asylum seekers because of its humane policies and relatively tolerant attitude (although these are challenged by the growth of the crisis). When we disembarked in Luleå, the refugees were welcomed by dozens of volunteers with food and beverages and further transportation was ready to take them to a new settlement.

View from train journey

View from train journey

Luleå is the largest city in the vast county of Norrland and located near the most northerly point of the Gulf of Bothnia. The difference in latitude from Stockholm was patently obvious, because the temperatures were much cooler and the trees were already shedding their gold and reddish brown leaves (in Stockholm the leaves were still green). Luleå isn’t the most riveting place in the world to visit, but I was quite excited to be so far north. I Couchsurfed in Luleå with Pakistani Riaz, a PhD student in civil engineering at the technical university in Luleå. Riaz was incredibly hospitable during my stay as we discussed cricket, studying in Sweden and the frigid conditions of living near the Arctic Circle. Riaz drove me to the World Heritage listed Church Town of Gammelstad, situated ten kilometres from Luleå. Gammelstad is considered the best example of a “church town”, which were once common throughout the vast expanses of Scandinavia. Gammelstad’s wooden houses were only used on Sundays and at religious festivals by parishioners who could not return on the same day because of the tyranny of distances. Some of Gammelstad’s 424 red-and-white wooden houses are still owned by the families that originally built them. The town’s stone Gothic church dates to the early fifteenth century.

Church Town of Gammelstad

Church Town of Gammelstad

This was not exactly a culinary trip, although I did enjoy a couple regional specialties. Near Hoga Kusten, I dined at a standard rural bistro (i.e. absent of the unnecessary trappings of an inner city restaurant) and ate a very Swedish dish: baked salmon with a cream and caviar sauce, boiled potatoes and white asparagus. I shuddered at the music of an Australian artist played on the sound-system. Normal, I would be proud to hear an Australian artist in such a remote location, but it was Guy Sebastian. In Umea, I lunched on a moose meatball with boiled potatoes and a gravy of mushrooms and caramelised onions. I also sampled Sweden’s most famous cheese, Vasterbotten cheese, which is hard, sharp and rather similar to parmesan.

Moose meatball

Moose meatball

I travelled along the Bothnian Coast of Sweden at the opportune time, just before the weather became really disagreeable for outdoor activities in the north. While I had a pleasant five day trip, I wouldn’t recommend any of the destinations as “unmissable” highlights of Sweden.

That’s all for now,

Liam

Sweden photos

Posted by Liamps 00:11 Archived in Sweden Comments (1)

Gothenburg

Sweden photos

Gothenburg is often touted as Sweden’s true cultural centre, especially by Swedes from outside Stockholm. The city boasts a vibrant maritime legacy that has translated into a more cosmopolitan, grungy and relaxed character than the national capital. Gothenburg is located on Sweden’s western coastline bordering the North Sea. It was founded in the seventeenth century so Swedish traders could circumvent the Danish-controlled Oresund Straits to access Western Europe. Gothenburg has since evolved into Sweden’s second largest city and Scandinavia’s largest port. Australian Anne, veteran of the “Iceland Eskimos” tour and currently studying in Denmark, spontaneously arranged a weekend trip to the city with Australian Jules, Mexican Priscilla, Greek George and yours truly. This excursion to Gothenburg roughly coincided with my birthday; so for those who know the date, it should indicate how far behind my blog is!

Central Gothenburg

Central Gothenburg

Dutch architects were commissioned to design Gothenburg as a heavily fortified city that could withstand raids from the Danes. Consequently, the inner areas of Gothenburg exhibit aesthetical similarities to Amsterdam. The centre of Gothenburg is an artificial island surrounded by a narrow canal. The centre is connected to the rest of Gothenburg by dozens of quaint bridges covered in flowers; a distinguishing attribute of the city. The architecture of the centre is predominately defined by neoclassical and restrained modernist edifices, as fires prior to the nineteenth century destroyed older, wooden buildings. In terms of public transportation, Gothenburg is served by a fleet of sky blue trams that form quintessential images of the city. Opposite the centre on the southern side of the canal is a belt of lush greenery that provides breathing space for the city. The pedestrianised, cobblestone streets of the centre’s grid layout are lined with bustling cafes, boutique shops and markets. The compactness of Gothenburg has resulted in an atmosphere suggestive of a city much larger than it actually is.

Floral bridges

Floral bridges

The area south of the centre formerly consisted of Gothenburg’s working class neighbourhoods. The Haga district is the oldest suburb in Gothenburg and was originally founded as the home of construction labourers working on the city’s initial fortifications. Some of Haga’s colourful wood panel townhouses from the seventeenth century survive. However, the international phenomenon of gentrification in inner city locations is certainly evident in Gothenburg. Haga now functions as Gothenburg’s equivalent to Fitzroy; a gritty area with brilliant cafes and bars that remains perpetually crowded.

Cafe in Haga

Cafe in Haga

South of inner Gothenburg is the massive green oasis of Slottsskogsparken. A commendable aspect of Swedish society is the perpetual access to nature, regardless of whether you live in an urban or rural context. This huge area of the city mostly consists of forest and lakes, though numerous paved trails meander through to create tranquil tracks for walking and running. At the heart of Slottsskogsparken is a free zoo that predominately exhibits domesticated animals endemic to Sweden. Modern farming practices threaten the survival of several species displayed, because foreign breeds are preferred to increase yield from agricultural production. I also spotted two moose, the largest and most fearsome of deer.

Moose!

Moose!

Our weekend trip to Gothenburg was essentially a culinary adventure, with some minor touristic activities to pass time. The city is considerably cheaper than Stockholm, which compelled me to indulge rather excessively. Gothenburg boasts a vibrant café culture, with numerous quirky establishments concentrated in Haga that sell rustic cakes and tarts. On our first morning, we stumbled upon a café displaying a dozen varieties of freshly baked treats outside the storefront. Luring us in, we quickly decided to gorge on the traditional Swedish buffet brunch. For just $14 (unthinkable in Stockholm), we were given individual glasses of pure berry smoothies, bowls of yoghurt and cheese and were granted free reign over a spread of potato salad (a Swedish obsession: usually potatoes float in a pool of cream flavoured with dill, capers and onion), crepes, bread, berries, homemade jams and butter (Swedish butter has no peer). The Swedish brunch was so amazing I had to have it twice (though at a different café for the sake of variation). The Swedes love nothing more than chowing down a “kanellebulle”, or cinnamon roll, which is quite possibly the most overrated food item on the planet. Cinnamon rolls are usually dry, bread-like (think Boston bun) and almost flavourless. However, my companions in Gothenburg delighted in eating cinnamon rolls that were larger than their heads (the gimmicky size is probably used to overcome the product’s meagre taste). In Gothenburg, I sampled one of Sweden’s most popular lunch dishes: an open sandwich with a towering pile of shrimp, sliced boiled egg, slices of cucumber and tomato and a mega dollop of mayonnaise. For dinner, I enjoyed gravalax (salmon cured with sugar and salt) served with mustard sauce and potatoes in creamy dill sauce.

Prawn and egg open sandwich

Prawn and egg open sandwich

I returned to Gothenburg on a study visit with my Railway Traffic class at KTH University. Sweden has engaged in deregulation of the country’s railways in the past 25 years to improve its efficiency and commercial potential. Consequently, numerous private companies now operate services in competition with the state owned company SJ. We boarded a private operator to Gothenburg and SJ for the return journey to identify differences in the services provided to customers. Personally, I preferred the modernity of the private operator’s train service. Swedish trains are considerably more comfortable than their Australian equivalents for passenger journeys, as powerpoints and free wifi are provided (in fact, I watched the exciting events that occurred on the 14th September in Canberra on my first return from Gothenburg, which resulted in an extraordinary birthday present: the removal of Tony Abbott as Prime Minister). Like Australia though, Sweden lacks high-speed rail due to a small population and large territory (and therefore the enormous costs involved). In Gothenburg, we toured the country’s largest marshalling yard, where freight trains are assembled.

No doubt loyal readers are grateful for this mercifully short entry: quite a change! I certainly. Not that this should reflect negatively on Gothenburg, as I thoroughly enjoyed my time in the city and I think it challenges Stockholm as Sweden’s best.

Part of the Gothenburg gang

Part of the Gothenburg gang

That’s all for now,

Liam

Sweden photos

Posted by Liamps 13:50 Archived in Sweden Comments (0)

Around Stockholm

Sweden photos

The Swedish people are particularly defined by their obsession with the outdoors and respect for the natural environment. The Swedes are especially proud of “Allemansrattan”, or their right of public access to the countryside. In Sweden, anyone is permitted to walk, ski, swim and camp in national parks and on private land, although gardens and crops must be avoided. This privilege is granted in the assumption that when people are enjoying the countryside, they will adhere to the fundamental mantra, “do no disturb, do not destroy.” While the Swedes love outdoor adventure and exploration, the ultimate “Swedish dream” is to own a slice of the countryside in the form of a summer house. More than 600,000 of these relatively small and aesthetically uniform red-and-white wooden structures dot the Swedish landscapes and the islands of Stockholm’s vast archipelago. Sweden consequently has the highest holiday-home ownership rate of any country in the world. Environmental consciousness is especially high in Sweden, both from individual and governmental perspectives. Recycling initiatives permeate everyday life, such as the easily accessible and lucrative ability to dispose of cans and bottles at supermarkets. Garbage is virtually non-existent and waterways throughout Sweden are perfectly safe to swim in, including the canals and harbour of central Stockholm. The Swedes are often characterised as embracing outdoor activities enthusiastically in all weather conditions, although I doubt the truthfulness of this claim. Like other nationalities, the Swedes exhibit a tendency to hibernate when inclement weather interferes. Fortunately, I arrived in Stockholm at the end of summer, which allowed me to enjoy the atmosphere and scenery of Stockholm and surrounding areas while the weather was still pleasant.

Swedish summer house

Swedish summer house

Perhaps the favourite summer pastime of Stockholmers is to enjoy the pristine nature of the Stockholm Archipelago. The archipelago stretches from the edge of Stockholm’s metropolitan area to the Baltic Sea. It comprises of 24,000 islands that range in size from a bathtub to islands large enough to support agriculture and villages. The islands are characterised by lush, coniferous forests and smooth rocks that interface with the water. The few “traditional” beaches that exist are tiny and composed of pebbles. Quaint summer houses pepper the islands, even isolated and treeless rocky atolls. I really admire how Sweden has managed to forge a quintessentially Swedish image of the countryside, purely by painting all rural wooden structures in the red-and-white motif. While ferries operate from Stockholm to a plethora of islands in the archipelago, Stockholmers particularly enjoy plying the waters in private boats; yachting is especially popular in Sweden.

Gallno

Gallno

I visited one of the archipelago’s most popular islands, Gallno, with a group of around sixty exchange students. This spontaneously organised event must have at least doubled the number of daily tourists that visit the island in summer. We were blessed with perhaps the best possible weather imaginable for Sweden: sunny sky and temperatures hovering above twenty degrees Celsius. The favourable conditions convinced some students to swim in the frigid Baltic water, though I failed to exhibit such bravery. Although Gallno is a permanently inhabited island with an agricultural community, cars and other large vehicles are entirely absent. Locals instead use motorcycles with trailers attached to the back to transport goods around the island. They otherwise travel by boat, bicycle or simply walking. Gallno’s miniscule village consists of three dozen red-and-white wooden houses, a tiny grocery store and picturesque gardens by the waterfront. Farmland and forest each account for roughly half of the island’s landmass. When ambling around the island, you certainly appreciate that Gallno is a working rural environment because the main “roads” regularly pass through farm gates. Small, easily losable trails meander through the dense forests of the island. Pine trees dominate the forests, although a smattering of deciduous trees exist and the ground is covered in thick and vibrant green vegetation. A small lake surrounded by forest exists in part of the island, intriguingly close to the seawater of the Baltic.

Lake on Gallno

Lake on Gallno

I decided to visit another of the Stockholm Archipelago’s islands independently. Uto, one of the largest islands in the archipelago, is located on the south-eastern edge and properly within the Baltic Sea. Consequently, far less islands are concentrated in this area than around Gallno. Several villages exist on Uto and some transport around the island is conducted by road. However, the island is more heavily forested, so it is easier to lose people and civilisation. I spent most of my time on Uto scrambling on the smooth rocks of the eastern coast. The presence of short pine trees within the rocky platforms gave them the appearance of naturally occurring bonsai. Clumps of hardy purple flowers and pools of black water also occupy the rocky platforms, which overall forms a quite unusual landscape.

Eastern coast of Uto

Eastern coast of Uto

Discussion about the ancient Swedish capital of Uppsala is not really compatible with this entry’s general theme of Swedish outdoor lifestyle. However, my daytrip to the city was somewhat “leisurely”, so that can be sufficient justification for its inclusion. Uppsala is Sweden’s fourth largest city, although it is relatively small at 150,000 residents. Uppsala is only one hour by train from Stockholm, so it essentially functions as a satellite city to the modern Swedish capital. Yet Uppsala’s history predates Stockholm by centuries. Gamla Uppsala, located in the countryside four kilometres from the centre of town, was formerly Scandinavia’s most important religious centre. Today the site consists of dozens of burial mounds constructed for Viking rulers and filled with Norse icons. I visited the picturesque area in the twilight of a crisp autumn day, when the leaves of deciduous trees evoked vibrant golden colours. Uppsala became the seat of the archbishopric of Sweden in 1164. When the original cathedral burnt down in the thirteenth century, the new cathedral was built in a regional trading centre nearby; thus effectively relocating Uppsala. Domkyrka is a magnificent Gothic cathedral composed of red-brick and black roofing. The cathedral spires, the tallest in Sweden, dominate Uppsala’s skyline and are viewable throughout the city. The “new” town of Uppsala has developed around the cathedral and along a narrow river replete with attractive bridges and lush riverbanks. The cosmopolitan hub of Uppsala, composed mostly of nineteenth century buildings, occupies the flat terrain on the opposite side of the river to the cathedral. A district of colourful medieval townhouses and winding narrow streets are concentrated around the cathedral. The Uppsala’s renaissance castle occupies a highpoint above the cathedral and provides excellent views of the city. Uppsala boasts Scandinavia oldest university and student culture seems to permeate throughout the city.

Autumn leaves and burial mounds at Gamla Uppsala

Autumn leaves and burial mounds at Gamla Uppsala

Artisanal bakeries are a mockery of what bakeries are supposed to be for; the acquisition of the cheapest form of sustenance (with the exception of carrots and onions, though few of us enjoy a diet replicating Sean’s). As previously mentioned, artisanal bakeries are the standard form of bakeries in Sweden, where loaves of bread often cost at least ten dollars. However, on the rare occasions I begrudgingly stump up the necessary fortune required to purchase baked goods in Sweden (more out of principle than financial hardship), I am always satisfied at least by the taste. On Uto, I acquired a delicious roll of curried chicken (curry powder is a popular flavouring agent throughout Northern Europe) with cucumber and tomato in excellent bread. I also ate a cardamom roll, which is one of Sweden’s most popular pastries. A sweet bread-like dough is twisted into a knot and baked with a cardamom and sugar paste on top. The result is reasonably tasty, though somewhat overrated.

One of Stockholm’s best attributes is the accessibility to intriguing daytrip destinations from the city. Unfortunately, I only managed to visit two of the archipelago’s islands during the warmer months, though both facilitated excellent afternoons of exploration. A visit to Stockholm is incomplete without venturing into the beloved Stockholm Archipelago to the east of the city.

That’s all for now,

Liam

Sweden photos

Posted by Liamps 09:25 Archived in Sweden Comments (0)

Stockholm

Photos of Sweden

The constituent purpose of Globo Trip II (ostensibly anyway) was to study on exchange at KTH University in Stockholm. At length I have debated how I should approach writing about the exchange program, since the experience is radically different to aimlessly gallivanting around the world. The easiest option would be to drop such an endeavour entirely so the blog can catch up! However, I will write roughly one entry for each month spent in Stockholm and focus on the city, Swedish society and cuisine rather than mundane topics such as study and daily chores. I decided to study in Sweden primarily because it was one of the few countries in Western Europe I failed to visit in 2013. I was also intrigued to experience life in a Scandinavian social democracy and analyse whether the much vaunted Nordic model is indeed the most ideal system of governance. I arrived in Stockholm at the end of summer to commence the semester on the 31st August, which gave me the opportunity to experience the city before the impending darkness and coldness of Swedish autumn and winter.

Gamla Stan connected to Norrmalm

Gamla Stan connected to Norrmalm

My residence in Stockholm is a ground-level “single-studio” in a new building at KTH. I was incredibly fortunate to be allocated a room on campus, because all other exchange students I have met live 20-60 minutes from KTH (although I pay substantially more for the privilege). The seven-storey building is occupied by Masters and PhD degree students from an eclectic range of countries, including Armenia, Belarus, Belgium, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Honduras, India, Indonesia, Morocco, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Switzerland, Turkey and the United States. The room is petite but adequate for one person and consists of a private kitchenette and bathroom. Unfortunately though, the ventilation seems to be quite poor because every time I cook, the room stinks of food and my clothes absorb the odour!

KTH University’s main campus is located approximately thirty minutes from the central area of Stockholm by walking (the preferable form of transit in a city of outrageously expensive public transportation). Since the university is specifically a technical institution, the campus is considerably smaller and less glamourous than the University of Melbourne. Nevertheless, it does consist of several old, ivy-covered brick buildings and a monumental courtyard used for major events. A pristine forest sprawls directly north-east of the campus, compensating for the lack of expansive grounds or sporting facilities. The preservation of this natural environment within an urban context is representative of a quintessential aspect of cities in Sweden. The neighbourhood to the south-east of the campus is predominately residential and peaceful. The area is mostly composed of four to six storey apartment buildings that exhibit a multitude of bright colours. Cafes, artisanal bakeries, small supermarkets and shops line the main thoroughfares near the campus. To my eternal annoyance, fruit and vegetable grocers, traditional bakeries (i.e. affordable) and butchers are completely absent from the area and Stockholm generally, which I have struggled to reconcile with since moving here.

The city of Stockholm occupies fourteen islands within Lake Malaren in central-east Sweden. The lake connects to the Baltic Sea through the Stockholm Archipelago, which consists of roughly 24,000 islands of varying magnitude. Stockholm is defined perhaps more so by its nature than built environment, with 60% of the city composed of green spaces and waterways. The political and historical centre of Stockholm is a tiny island known as Gamla Stan, or the old town. The Stockholm City Centre constitutes four areas surrounding Gamla Stan: Sodermalm, Ostermalm, Norrmalm and Kungsholmen. Sodermalm is a large island located directly south of Gamla Stan and functions as Stockholm’s hipster, arty enclave. Sodermalm is relatively hilly and the northern cliffs provide magnificent views over the city. North of Gamla Stan is Norrmalm, the commercial centre of Stockholm that consists of the city’s primary shopping precincts, corporate headquarters and the Central Station. Stockholm’s swankiest neighbourhoods are located east of Norrmalm in Ostermalm. KTH University is located just to the north of this borough. Kungsholmen is another island to the west of Norrmalm and features a more casual atmosphere to the other areas of the inner city. The metropolitan area sprawls in all directions from Stockholm City Centre.

View from Sodermalm

View from Sodermalm

Tourists are not particularly noticeable in Stockholm, except for in the compact old town of Gamla Stan. The pedestrianised main thoroughfare that meanders through the island is loaded with gimmicky souvenir shops and tourist traps, giving it the undesirable atmosphere of Venice or central Prague. Tour groups are attracted to the area obviously because it is Stockholm’s most beautiful. For most of Stockholm’s history, the city existed purely on Gamla Stan; giving the area a distinctive aesthetical appearance. The layout of Gamla Stan is essentially medieval, with narrow winding roads cross-crossing to form an almost unnavigable environment. The tall, slender townhouses are almost Germanic in appearance, with steep roofs, exposed wooden framing and colourful paint. Renaissance churches are scattered throughout Gamla Stan, while the northern side of the island is dominated by the gargantuan Royal Palace and the semi-circular Swedish Parliament (neither of which I have visited yet).

Gamla Stan

Gamla Stan

The waterfront area of Norrholm and Osterholm and the vast parkland island of Djugarden are my favourite areas in Stockholm. The waterfront is bordered by some of Stockholm’s grandest structures, with hotels and expensive apartment buildings from the nineteenth century preserved magnificently. Numerous ferries that serve the islands to the east dock in this area, creating a lively multi-modal hub with trams and cyclists. The expansive pedestrianised areas beside the water provide excellent views of Gamla Stan, Sodermalm, the harbour and other areas of central Stockholm. Djugarden is entirely composed of parkland and museums and is a hive of physical activity. The island boasts lush forest, manicured gardens and an ethnographic zoo within ten minute walk from central Stockholm. I stumbled upon an apple orchid on Djugarden, connected to a café precinct with flower gardens and greenhouses. The orchid featured at least a dozen different apple tree species. I disregarded the Swedish sign indicating that the apples were the property of the café and happily began picking the ripe fruit; intending to feign ignorance.

Djugarden

Djugarden

The international significance of Swedish society commenced with the Viking Age in the ninth and tenth centuries. The Swedish Vikings were less adventurous than their Danish and Norwegian counterparts, although they successfully established trade links as far east as Constantinople and Baghdad and settled in modern-day Russia. A unified Swedish state gradually developed during the Viking Age, which was further strengthened by the country’s conversion to Christianity in 1020. The Swedish kings inherited the Norwegian throne in 1319, although by the end of the century both countries were incorporated into the Dane-dominated Kalmar Union. In 1520, Gustav Vasa inspired a rebellion which led to Sweden’s liberation and the establishment of the Vasa dynasty. Gustav reigned for 37 years and developed a centralised state with Stockholm as the new Swedish capital. He also converted the country to Protestantism, leading to Sweden’s major role in the Thirty Years’ War in the early seventeenth century. Despite Sweden’s small population, its armies dominated the Catholic alliances of the continent as it plundered the German and Polish heartlands. The Swedish Empire was subsequently born, with southern Sweden (formerly Danish) Finland, the Baltic States and coastal regions of Germany and Poland conquered. Wars with Russia in the eighteenth century concluded Sweden’s glory as the kingdom lost all non-Swedish speaking territories. Sweden remained neutral during both world wars, although it became an important refuge for Jews escaping occupied Europe. Sweden’s social democracy was founded in 1936 and it rapidly transitioned from an agrarian, impoverished society to an industrialised and highly developed country with poverty virtually eradicated.

Perhaps the most interesting part of living in Sweden is to analyse how the society functions and evaluate whether it truly is “utopian”. The country’s iconic social democracy is defined particularly by high taxes, a robust welfare state and strong environmental policies. Predictably, I have discovered both positives and negatives; though Swedes themselves seem to universally support their social democracy. Aside from the intentionally homeless Romani people, Sweden is seemingly absent of impoverished citizens; housing, food, healthcare and education are guaranteed to all. Consequently, the Swedish streetscape is perpetually familiar: everyone seems to possess a relatively similar economic capacity, even those of different ethnicities. Furthermore, migrants are processed rapidly and their assimilation into Swedish society is conducted very efficiently. Housing and employment opportunities are provided and provisions to learn the Swedish language are emphasised. I have therefore been constantly surprised to see people from a multitude of backgrounds conversing naturally in Swedish. In comparison, the English skills of migrants to Australia are often quite poor. Surely this difference is systematic, rather than reflective of the individuals. The negative aspect of classlessness and assimilation is that diversity is hindered. London, New York, Hong Kong and Melbourne are probably my favourite cities in the world precisely because of their vibrant, multicultural compositions. Stockholm might be as ethnically diverse as these four cities, but the monotonous atmosphere and appearance of the city is not reflective of the reality. Another irritation about Swedish society is the rules, specifically in regards to alcohol. Beverages with an alcohol percentage above 3% can only be purchased in government-owned liquor stores with restrictive hours (closes at 3pm on Saturdays and not open on Sundays). Alcohol cannot be consumed in public spaces like parks and the high taxes makes drinking at bars somewhat cost prohibitive. I will continue discussion about Swedish society in subsequent entries.

While the Swedish culinary repertoire is rather limited, the few dishes endemic to the country are routinely prepared with excellence. Indeed, I have yet to taste a poor rendition of Sweden’s idiosyncratic meatballs. The generic form of the dish, made famous by IKEA, consists of a dozen small beef meatballs covered in brown sauce and served with mash potatoes, lingonberries (tiny crimson berries bursting with tanginess and eaten with literally everything) and pickled slices of cucumbers. On Sodermalm, I discovered the trendy café “Meatballs for the People” that would not look out of place in central Melbourne (the ultimate compliment to a cool-café aspirant). I have since returned multiple times for its succulent meatballs and inventiveness. At “Meatballs for the People”, I have tried the generic meatball dish as well as venison meatballs in cauliflower soup and veal meatballs in wild mushroom soup, both rich and delicious dishes. Stockholm’s central market, Saluhall, is the city’s premium location to purchase or merely browse Swedish delicacies. The glamorous stores (Stockholm simply does not do rustic, even in a market) are filled with items such as pickled herring, gravalax (cured salmon), caviar, pate and cloudberry jam. Swedish cuisine is particularly defined by fresh seafood, which can be used as the main component of a dish or the garnish of a dish. One of the first dishes I ate in Stockholm was fried cod with mash potatoes, dill and shrimp salad, which is shrimp with diced vegetables and cream. At a church-owned cafeteria I tried salmon pudding, which is the Swedish fish and potato equivalent to lasagne. Layers of salmon, sliced potatoes and cheese with presumably butter are baked until crispy and dripping with juicy goodness. Eating out regularly in the evening is cost prohibitive in Stockholm, but fortunately all restaurants offer a “dagens lunch”, or meal of the day with salad and bread, for less $20.

Meatballs at Meatballs for the People

Meatballs at Meatballs for the People

The late summer was certainly a pleasant time to arrive in Stockholm, because I was able to experience the city while Swedes were still enthusiastically embracing outdoor life and the city was at its most colourful. Travelling to Stockholm in the summer months is therefore advisable, because the differences in weather between seasons is more pronounced than other parts of Europe. Unfortunately though, few backpackers incorporate Stockholm or any part of Scandinavia into their Euro trips, which is a shame because the region offers very different experiences to the southern core of the continent.

That’s all for now,

Liam

Photos of Sweden

Posted by Liamps 13:39 Archived in Sweden Comments (2)

Iceland III

Iceland photos

Supposed experts on social dynamics would argue that a fellowship of three is not a harmonise number and doomed for disaster. It was therefore inevitable that acrimony and extreme disagreement would manifest between the “Iceland Eskimos”. The ubiquitous source of long road-trip quarrels, the choice of music played, indeed blighted our Icelandic adventure. Readers would be aware of my general nonchalance to music, so in regular life I rarely foment arguments about the tunes played. But I do have standards that are at least higher than Taylor Swift. Consistently my complaints about her musical ability (or lack thereof) were swiftly denied (its been a while since I’ve thrown a lame pun into Globo Trip) by Australian Anne and New Caledonian Kally. They formed an unbreakable alliance that controlled the airwaves and subjected me to torturous renditions of Swift hits (I would say misses). You might think this is a mild complaint for a two week trip, but imagine listening to such low-quality music for that entire duration. A glimmer of kindness and sympathy resonated from Anne and Kally when they appointed me temporary DJ. But my tenure lasted only two songs, as Pink Floyd was deemed entirely unacceptable. Due to my magnanimous nature, I opted to defuse the situation and simply tolerate their heinous selfishness; although resentment and bitterness festered internally. Despite the lamentable behaviour of my travel companions, I still managed to enjoy the last six days of my trip to Iceland; a commendable achievement.

Undoubtedly one of most incredible natural attractions I have ever seen is the iceberg lake of Jokulsarlon. The lake is less than a century old and fed by the melting ice of Vatnajokull, the world’s largest non-polar glacier. Vatnajokull occupies a sixth of Iceland’s landmass and completely covers the mountains of Iceland’s south-east, creating an enormous icy plateau. Several volcanoes are situated literally below this gargantuan glacier; resulting in devastating interactions between fire and ice. Several glacial tongues stretch through valleys from Vatnajokull down to the country’s south-eastern coastline. One such glacial tongue has gradually contracted to form Jokulsarlon. The lake brims with thousands of icebergs of varying magnitudes and formations. The biggest icebergs are the size of houses and seals occasionally lounge on their frigid platforms. Some icebergs are jagged and gnarly, while others are circular and quaint. The icebergs are generally vivid white, though some evoke shades of blue or are covered in black ash windswept onto them from the surrounding landscape. The scenery at Jokulsarlon is therefore entirely defined by three colours (or shades, for the pedantic): blue, white and black. Iceland’s shortest river connects the lake to the Atlantic Ocean, enabling the icebergs to float toward their melted destinies. The black pebble beaches at Jokulsarlon are strewn with icebergs, creating perhaps the least tropical beach setting imaginable. As global warming intensifies, Jokulsarlon will continue its incessant expansion.

Jokulsarlon

Jokulsarlon

The “Iceland Eskimos” decided to partake in a glacial hike on one of Vatnajokull’s glacial tongues. Unfortunately though, the difficulty of the hike was rather tame and the tour was dominated by annoying French people (to the chagrin of the Belgian guide). We were required to wear crampons to grip the ice and wield an axe for extra support if necessary. However, the axes were only required for clichéd photographs on the glacier. It was difficult to appreciate we were hiking on ice, because the surface was mostly covered in ash and loose aggregate from the above cliffs. Nevertheless, the landscape was still quite surreal with its rolling mounds of greyish ice in the foreground of an epic glacial tongue descending precipitously from Vatnajokull’s plateau. Imagine the ice planet Matt Damon was stranded on in Interstellar; the filming location was that glacial tongue.

Kally, Liam and Kally on a glacial tongue of Vatnajokull

Kally, Liam and Kally on a glacial tongue of Vatnajokull

The constituent access point to Vatnajokull for touristic purposes is Skaftafell: a camping precinct that numerous hiking trails commence from. Since the weather promised to be rather inhospitable for our visitation, we decided to take a short trail to a lookout over a glacial tongue. However, I secretly smuggled a stash of Mars bars and extra clothing into my bag in case the temptation to do a much longer hike to a panoramic viewpoint proved irresistible. We began hiking at nearly 9 o’clock, mindful of the ominous cloud-cover and predicted rain by midday. The forty-five minute ascent to the lookout was through shoulder-high vegetation and passed a couple of minor waterfalls. The lookout was certainly impressive but hardly satiated my curiosity to see more of Vatnajokull. Consequently, the fear of regret convinced Anne and I to ascend further to Kristínartindar.

Glacial tongue

Glacial tongue

We noticed several other tourists were also taking the full loop to the summit, reassuring us that risking the elements was sensible. However, their attire, hiking sticks and full backpacks suggested their preparedness far exceeded ours. Our casual, unplanned approach characterised the differences between the Australian and Northern European/American psyches. We arranged for Kally to pick us up from the base at 2:30pm, ambitiously requiring us to complete the hike in five hours. Immediately after departing, the trail became considerably more difficult but we still powered past the other fully-kitted hikers with relative ease. After an hour, we reached another more impressive lookout over the glacial tongue and proceeded to ascend on what we thought was the correct trail. We found ourselves hiking up a very steep slope completely absent of vegetation and with minimal markers. Already questioning whether we selected the correct direction, we hiked along a slender trail clinging precariously to a slope of loose rock scree. We eventually reached a ridge overlooking the glacial tongue and were exposed to bitterly cold winds. We contemplated returning, mindful that the foreboding ascent to the summit, steep and on loose scree, could become treacherous if a sudden downpour occurred. But FOMO motivated us to press on.

Anne on the precarious trail

Anne on the precarious trail

After twenty minutes of careful scrambling, we became the first people to summit Kristínartindar for the day. Miraculously, the dreariness of the weather paused for ten minutes as the sun broke through to enliven one of the most phenomenal views I had ever seen. We were high above the original glacial tongue and could now view another glacial tongue on the other side of the ridge. Furthermore, we could observe the edge of Vatnajokull’s ominous plateau in substantial detail.

Conquered Kristínartindar

Conquered Kristínartindar

After absorbing the mind-boggling views that totally satisfied our decision to preserve, we began the long descent to the base. We briefly believed that perhaps no other hikers were attempting the summit that day, but disappointingly we soon passed numerous hikers ascending. We greeted some of the strangers with friendly “g’day’s” to test their responses, but were only met with confused faces and no words. The path we followed on the descent was considerably less difficult and through equally less dramatic (though still beautiful) scenery. In order to adhere to the 2:30pm return time, we were forced to descend the steep upper portion at a frenetic pace. We literally sprinted the last 1.8 kilometres and charged past dozens of bemused tourists ambling to a pleasant waterfall. We concluded our epic hike elated, exhausted and without enduring a single drop of rain at 2:28pm.

Panoramic from Kristínartindar

Panoramic from Kristínartindar

The penultimate day of the “Iceland Eskimos” tour of Iceland’s Ring Road was a rather leisurely affair, as we drove along the south-east coastline. I did suffer through Anne and Kally’s fake radio broadcast “Sheep Shizzle FM” (the definition of ineptitude), but I won’t harp (er) on the negatives. The virtually uninhabited coastal region of Iceland’s south-east is characterised by vast desert-like plains of black sand (formed from glacial processes); desolate, eerie and seemingly endless. They do, however, eventually end with the coast transitioning into a rocky landscape. We stopped in the town of Vik, which is situated in a secluded bowl of emerald greenery beside the coast. The nearby beaches are composed of black pebbles and feature basalt column cliffs (resemble columns of varying height clumped together) and unusual offshore rock formations. Residing in the tufts of grasses on the rock ledges are thousands of puffins, Iceland’s beloved (both for cuteness and taste) native birds. Puffins are much smaller than I realised, perhaps only marginally larger than a magpie. They are also much more adept to flying than I realised, as they wiz around quickly at altitude like, well, most birds! I suppose my impressions were corrupted by penguins too much.

Puffin

Puffin

After our coastal drive, we visited arguably Iceland’s most attractive waterfall, Skogafoss. The 60 metre high falls tumble over an emerald green cliff that once marked the sea’s edge. Its crashing water generates rainbows and plumes spray as high as the falls themselves. The Skoga River cascades over a series of less powerful but still captivating waterfalls before it reaches Skogafoss. By this stage of our Icelandic adventure, we had become waterfall snobs and decided to skip another famous waterfall because it seemed quite average from the Ring Road. Unfortunately though, we later discovered that it was the waterfall Kally most wanted to see in Iceland (perhaps even her primary impetus for travelling to the country)!

Skogarfoss

Skogarfoss

On our final night together, we stayed at a “hostel” (like in Reydarfjordur, it was more a house converted into tourist accommodation) in the middle of nowhere and found ourselves sharing the establishment with a group of four septuagenarian Canadian women. While they were not exactly the target demographic we were hoping to encounter, they proved to be the friendliest people we met for the entire trip. The travel scene in Iceland is inherently anti-social, as groups stick to themselves rigidly and individual backpackers are entirely absent. That was somewhat disappointing for us, especially since we were sick of each other very rapidly. The Canadians though were eager for a yarn and we were soon discussing random destinations in Victoria and Tasmania they were familiar with from camping escapades Down Under.

Tourists with a brief transit layover in Reykjavik often sample Iceland’s scenery on the “Golden Circle”, a triumvirate of attractions connected by a loosely circular route from the capital. We completed the “Golden Circle” on our final road trip in Iceland, though our route was longer and more convoluted than recommended. I have to admit responsibility for a significant delay incurred due to a case of, “oh no, I’ve lost my phone… oops, its in my back pocket.” Our first destination was Gullfoss, an epic two-tiered waterfall with plunges of 11 metres and 12 metres. While impressive, by Gullfoss we were comprehensively waterfalled-out. We then visit the Great Geysir, the first geyser known to Europeans (hence the name of this phenomenon). The Great Geysir can reach heights of over 170 metres, but unfortunately eruptions are very in frequent. The neighbouring Little Geysir erupts every few minutes though and rockets water to a height of thirty metres. Against popular opinion, I thought our third and final attraction, Thingvellir National Parl, was easily the highlight of the Golden Circle. Thingvellir is World Heritage listed both for its geological and cultural significance. It lies within the Mid-Atlantic Ridge between the Eurasian and North American continental plates and is a unique destination to appreciate tectonic divergence. While some imagination is required to properly appreciate the geography (which Anne clearly lacked), faults and minor canyons dot the landscape; suggestive of divergence. Crystal-clear water fills the rifts, enabling divers to swim “between two continents” with visibility extended to great depths. Thingvellir was the site of the world’s first parliament, the Althingi, formed in 930 to govern the newly settled island. The assembly was the legislative and judicial authority in Iceland for 340 years until Norwegian conquest. It was composed of chieftains from throughout Iceland that would gather once a year at Thingvellir to discuss and vote upon matters affecting the nation. These annual gatherings were also the cultural epicentre of early Icelandic society. The Althingi was notionally responsible for judicial matters under Norwegian and then Danish hegemony until its abolishment in 1800.

Thingvellir National Park

Thingvellir National Park

For a country of just 325,000 residents and 70 years of independence, you can’t expect Iceland’s modern capital to be terribly enthralling. Luckily I arrived with low-expectations, because Reykjavik was insufferably boring after exploring Iceland’s glorious nature. The not-so-old old town is composed predominately of colourful wooden buildings, though its not particularly expansive or beautiful. The waterfront is dreary and not engaging, despite maritime culture permeating the city. Reykjavik does at least boast the astonishing modernist church of Hallgrimskirkja. The architect hoped that the church’s audacious design would inspire a distinctive national architectural style to manifest in Iceland, since it was constructed just after independence. The church emphasises verticality and intentionally resembles the rising basalt columns of the coastline near Vik. Situated on a high point above the old town, the church is visible from most areas of Reykjavik. I also visited a surprisingly excellent museum in Reykjavik detailing the history of the Icelandic people (defined, general, by hardship).

Hallsgrimkirkja

Hallsgrimkirkja

There were few culinary offerings that were terribly exciting in this component of the trip. We dined at an overpriced restaurant in Vik, where I had seafood soup (broth flavoured with curry powder – seems to be a common practice in Scandinavia) and cured trout. In Reykjavik, I ate a gourmet batch of fish and chips with a locally sourced fish species I’ve forgotten the name of. I sampled rye bread ice-cream, which was surprisingly quite delicious (bit like a thicker version of cookies and cream). I also enjoyed multiple hot dogs, the defining food of Iceland (which should be reflective of their cuisine’s complexity).

Few countries in the world can boast a natural composition as spectacular, humbling and unique as Iceland’s. The island is essentially a geographical toddler: exceptionally young and constantly developing from the nurturement of its mother. Fire, ice and wind is used by Mother Nature to craft Iceland idiosyncratic landscapes and distinctive identity. Special thanks to Australian Anne and New Caledonian Kally for sharing this wonderful experience in Iceland: they were both fantastic companions to have for the trip.

Jokulsarlon

Jokulsarlon

That’s all for now,

Liam

Iceland photos

Posted by Liamps 12:47 Archived in Iceland Comments (0)

(Entries 1 - 15 of 120) Page [1] 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 »