Signor Porridge is giddy with excitement.
So much so that he barely knows what’s up and what’s down.
Signor Porridge is giddy with excitement.
So much so that he barely knows what’s up and what’s down.
Last night I saw live flamenco.
Almost unknowingly, I have carried it with me since my childhood in rural Australia.
My grandmother returned from an overseas trip with a gift from Spain – an ersatz tortoise-shell comb to add drama to one’s hair. It features a delicate painting of a pair of flamenco dancers. Their tiny, slender bodies emanate grace and drama. (As a child I couldn’t see the passion.) Continue reading
Is watching the sunrise, mountain top to mountain top, worth a 4.15am rise? Getting up very early to experience or accomplish something is a gamble few of us make. After pondering the long list of considerations revolving around the possibility of satisfaction, one is left with good old opportunity cost, “Would I be better off sleeping?” If you can catch such a sunrise any day then maybe you would trade the early rise in summer for a later rise in another season. But, The BB and I cannot.
After we’d bought the tickets for Mammoth Mountain’s* inaugural Sunrise from the Peak in July, friends of ours advised, “It’s only sleep.” They opted not to join us. Continue reading
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.
With a thrill of excitement and a touch of disbelief, we took our passports when we walked across the bridge, town to town.
Walking into another country amazes and delights me. Growing up in the south-west of Western Australia meant that travelling to another state was a huge event – one requiring more than a cut lunch and a waterbag. Going to another country was a feat. Transport affordability and border restrictions have changed since then but the novelty hasn’t worn off – memory stalks and history breathes.
Because of their speed, we expect landscape, cultural and time zone changes when we travel in vehicles. Walking is such a simple act, homely and unassuming, so it is all the more surprising to find massive, rapid change attached to it.
We are in the little German (Bavaria) town of Laufen, which is about 21km north of Salzburg. It was once one town spreading on either side of the Salzach River. The river was its lifeblood, as precious salt from the Salzburg mines was transferred here from small boats to larger ones. In 1816, following the Napoleonic Wars, Laufen was separated from its suburbs over the river and became German. The new town was named Oberndorf and given to the Austrians.
The traffic bridge is moody. In the evening sun the plaques and statues glow benignly. In the morning, mist renders it ‘Gothic crime novel’.
On day four of our stay, after rain-filled day three, the river, which normally appears sluggish due to its width and pale grey-green opaqueness, is raised and racing. It is littered with sticks and branches and I almost expect to see a body. Waves surge up the piers but the bridge is stalwart. (It was completed in 1903 to replace its less-reliable wooden predecessor.)
Across the bridge, walking the streets of Oberndorf, one treads almost hallowed ground. It is the birthplace of the carol, Silent Night, first performed in 1818. The town priest wrote the lyrics and asked a nearby organist and schoolmaster to compose the music. The latter accompanied the inaugural singing on his guitar. The church in which it was sung was demolished in 1913 due to flood damage. A memorial chapel was erected on the site in 1937. It is here that people from all over the world gather on Christmas Eve to sing, in many languages, this beloved carol.
Crossing cultures and times can be as easy as walking or singing.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Q. Where is the most picturesque part of the city? A. Bryggen, the world heritage harbour is a must see…
… 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.
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.
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.
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.
I created our route south through Belgium based on the ‘prettiness’ ratings villages had received online. I expected (as its neighbour Germany) flowerboxes, profuse gardens around handkerchief lawns, paned windows with functional shutters and verdant verges.
The villages were almost the anti-thesis of that. There’s nothing like stretches of asphalt and stones around houses to impart a little starkness.
There were other surprises in store.
The roads were lined with youthful walkers toting maps, backpacks, sodden clothes and cheerful smiles. It seemed the local high schools had ordered a mass orienteering exercise. In mixed-gender groups of four to twenty they trod and cycled the roads, seemingly having the time of their lives (apart from that one girl pushing her bike up the hill with everyone else sailing off into the distance).
I surmised this was a competition: Who can sit the longest in unpleasant conditions? Who has the largest number of blue, fishing-related articles? Whose lure will a fish happen to swim past and find enticing enough to bite?
In another town a policeman barred our way, directing us down a side road. A marching band, complete with several heraldic banners but virtually no audience, finally lead us to realise that this was a national holiday. This revelation also gave context to the closure of some town high streets for markets and festivities plus the previous night’s stunning fireworks. The former necessitated some quite lengthy and scenic detours.
In this vein, we meandered south and the country transformed our straightforward drive into an exploration of its traditions and past-times.