Tag Archives: history

Fortress and Fairytale

Dear John Crichton-Stuart, 3rd Marquess of Bute,

Thank you for Castell Coch.

Of course, you were not entirely responsible for it – you inherited the ruins and employed William Burges, architect, to rebuild and embellish – but your vision and interest in history (not to mention, vast wealth – weren’t you one of the world’s richest people?) fuelled the project.

HDR+pS Continue reading


Q and A on B

Q. How does one schedule three consecutive days of sunshine in one of Europe’s wettest cities, months in advance?                                                                                  A. Luck may be the most reliable method. It worked for us. There are 132 163 days a year from which to choose. Average precipitation (rain and snow) is 2250mm (89”).


Q. What does B stand for?                                                                                                 A. Bergen. It’s the second-most populous city (275 200 people) in Norway and lies west of Oslo on the coast.


Q. Where is the best place for coffee?                                                                               A. Native Bergensians/Bergeners directed us to two places. I do not like coffee so rely on the BB’s verdict. He told me it was superb at Det lille Kaffekompaniet . When pressed, he added, “smooth, full-bodied and convincing.” The hot chocolate (that’s me) was rich and thickish with a subtle cinnamon flavour. It’s worth drinking there simply for the pleasure of the tiny room lined with teas, coffees, chocolates and other goodies. In fact, we enjoyed it and its central location so much that we didn’t make it to the other recommendation, Kaffemisjonen, for the second cup.


Q. Where is the best place for carrot cake?                                                                    A. Again, local recommendations: Lie Nielsen (also for traditional cake) and Café Aura. Apparently, the traditional cake to try (or not, depending who’s advising) is one made from pieces of bread. I was too full from eating other stuff* to try this.

*Q. What are skillingsboller?                                                                                            A. The Bergensian/Norwegian cinnamon bun. In days of yore they could be bought for one skilling (coin).                                                                                             Q. Where?                                                                                                                             A. Our locals recommended Godt Bread organic bakery but skillingsboller are  widespread. Those in our coffee shop looked good.


Sheepskins are draped over chairs outside a cafe to keep the chill from customers.


Q. In which country would you most like to accidentally leave your laptop and passport on a public bus?                                                                                                  A. Norway would be a sensible choice. In fact, this is exactly what The BB did. After he realised their loss he consoled himself with the knowledge that Norway, as other Nordic countries, is a high trust society. Forty minutes later, after numerous stops around town, they arrived back at the stop where he had disembarked.


The cannonball in the wall of Bergen Cathedral dates from a battle between the English and Dutch in 1665.

Q. Why is wine so expensive?                                                                                           A. Beverages with an alcohol content higher than 4.75% are sold only in Vinmonopolet, shops wholly owned by the government. Lower strength beer can be purchased in supermarkets but not every day and only up to certain hours. Much of the stock in Vinmonopolet is viewable only in a catalogue. It seems there are just one or two stores in Bergen but even the monopoly itself suggests that tourists bring their own alcohol due to the exorbitant prices. Unsurprisingly, Norway is consistently in the bottom three or four OECD countries by yearly alcohol consumption per capita.


Even rundown areas are picturesque with their kerbs of stones.

Q. What does it mean to be a member of the Hanseatic League?                              A. The Hanseatic League operated mainly in the Baltic and North seas from the mid-thirteenth to mid-seventeenth century. It was a trade organisation begun by North German sea-faring merchants. Bergen, blessed with a harbour, dried fish and fish oil, became one of four permanent bases outside the Hanseatic area.


The Hanseatic Museum is part of UNESCO-listed Bryggen Harbour. With its wooden construction and idiosyncratic rooms (eg beds in the walls), it is informative and delightful. It was once the office around which 2000 men worked, segregated from the rest of the city by fences and their own rules and regulations. The word Hanseatic lives on in Bergen’s Hansa brewery.


Scales with some of the region’s famous dried fish.

Q. What does EL on car number plates mean?                                                             A. Electric. The no-tax on electric cars in Norway makes them attractive financially as well as environmentally. In one day, in the small area we traversed, we saw three Teslas as well as a number of other makes. Our hosts are part of a car share group that uses electric cars. Across the country, 14.5% of new vehicle sales are electric.

Q. And what of art?                                                                                                              A. Wander the streets.


Statues of city fathers (city mothers, much less so) and general art works plus sculptures abound.




There are a number of galleries. I visited the Kode which is spread across four buildings. The Norwegian gallery is superb. A number of influential artists are featured, as is Edward Munch. It is informative and deeply pleasurable to have such a volume of work in one place that one can trace the development of an artist and individual pieces. (It’s rather like following a blog where one witnesses not only the changes in a person’s personal life but the changes in their photography and writing.) A special Munch treat is a preparatory drawing of the face in The Scream.


Even the manhole covers contribute to the artistry of the city.

Q. Where is the most picturesque part of the city?                                                      A. Bryggen, the world heritage harbour is a must see…


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An alleyway between Bryggen buildings.

… but I loved the quaint wooden houses on the hill behind.


Bergen has been subjected to many fires since it became a city in 1170. There were several large ones in the 1900s. Unfortunately, these fairytale-like houses with their jumble of narrow walkways and steps are now confined to the area near the funicular.




The stairs are so steep the bannisters are vertical.


A cubby house built on the rocky slope between residential roads.

More regular, colourful houses are elsewhere.



Q. What clothes should I pack?                                                                                        A. An umbrella. Obviously. And sunglasses. At this time of year, the sun gets over the mountains (Bergen is known as the city of seven mountains. Move aside, Rome.) a little before ten. It rises valiantly but doesn’t make it much higher than the tallest building. Consequently, the sun is in one’s eyes all day.


This was taken at about 10am.

Q. Where can I easily gain fantastic views of the city with minimal effort? And I want something for my children/me to do while there. Oh, and something to eat. Plus souvenirs.                                                                                                                      A. All that and a great ride from the heart of the city. The funicular is actually public transport with stops along the way like a bus. When we visited, the playground thrummed with children and people of all ages strode or ambled along the many trails. The restaurant serves lunches and the kiosk, souvenirs.IMG_9685

Q. Is Bergen worth a return visit?                                                                                    A. I greatly enjoyed my two days (The BB had three) in this picturesque city. A longer stay would have meant more art galleries and hikes, perhaps a cruise around the fjords. However, I if I were to visit Norway again, I would prefer to venture further north to see the Aurora Borealis.



Even the fast food vans are charming.


Faded elegance in the heart of the city.

HDR gazebo

Frost lingers in the city centre at mid-morning.


An anatomically correct unicorn in Bryggen.


Cape Town Caper

Large black-maned lions used to roam the land where Cape Town now stands. The last one was shot sometime between 1802 and 1858.


Rembrandt – a Cape lion

The sea used to wash through what is now downtown. It was pushed back in the 1930s and 40s – presumably using the know-how of the Dutch, those masters of land reclamation.

Cape Town from Table Mountain

Cape Town is a working harbour.

District Six was a thriving mixture of cultures. Apartheid policies razed it. It is now largely grass supporting a few religious buildings. People sprawl between the occasional boulders and rubbish. Continue reading

The Elves and the Moccasins

Perhaps it began with The Elves and the Shoemaker (still one of my two favourite fairytales).

I’m no Imelda Marcos but when I was a child I did long for a pair of pointy red shoes. (I couldn’t believe my fortune when my cousin gave me her outgrown ones – the very pair that had seeded the yearning.)

When I was a teenager I made my own knee-high ugg boots. Mum sometimes tanned skins from our sheep and I snaffled a brown one of those. I bought leather thonging and spent evenings sewing by the fire. The boots were utilitarian rather than decorative and terrifically snugly. It didn’t bother me that they were not as tidy as other people’s store-bought ones.

There’s something very pleasing about meeting one’s own needs. Continue reading

Alcatraz: Our Mirror

Alcatraz was a factory – three storeys of cells for reprogramming criminals.

Alcatraz cells

But it wasn’t always so. Continue reading

The Kremlin, Dominion of Domes

I am besotted with the domed roofs of the Moscow Kremlin. Fair warning. I have tried to keep them to a manageable number in this post but I can’t help but think you’ll love them too and either forgive their frequent appearances or be hankering for more.

Continue reading

I Spy, I Hear, I Smell, I Taste…Moscow

A young ladder, wet around the…er…rungs watches as the wise old home-made ladder demonstrates that one must ultimately lead to something. Continue reading