Sunday, August 12, 2018

Sweden


             Sweden   (June 12)
We are currently – August 10 – in London, enjoying our flat in Notting Hill, continuing our attempts to catch up on where we’ve been since leaving Alicante in early April. Then we can start catching up on what we’ve done in London!

Another first-class train ride took us to Stockholm (no hot chocolate on this one, though). I must admit I really liked the public transport in Norway, both the long-distance trains and the city trams; all very well done with plenty of information for passengers. Sweden and Denmark also have great public transport, but I expect Norway’s is newer.

New and old: dome of Hedvig Eleonora Church, from 1737

Stockholm is a fantastic city. The harbor area is full of gorgeously-decorated buildings of a decent, human size (like the iconic Haussmann buildings in Paris, it was built in the mid-1800s, before elevators, when six floors were as high as anyone wanted to climb). Sweden has long been a rich country due to trade. It’s open to the Baltic Sea, with access to Poland, St. Petersburg, and all of western Russia. Rich merchants built rich buildings, and the results are still with us in Stockholm.

Buildings along the waterfront in Stockholm
An impressive building in downtown Stockholm, now a major hotel

Stortorget, Stockholm's oldest square. 

There is an incredible array of islands east of Stockholm, called the archipelago (which, after all, means a group of islands). Some are tiny islets; but there are many that host homes, and even towns. We took a ferry (always ready to get out on the water!) to Vaxholm, about 30 minutes away. Along the way the boat made at least half-a-dozen stops to let off and take on passengers (many with bicycles). Some of the houses we saw from the water appeared to be summer cottages, but we were told this ferry is a commuter boat, carrying people from the islands to jobs in Stockholm year-round.

One of a half-dozen ferry stops 
Vaxholm was a cute town, worth a half-hour of wandering (and another half-hour having an excellent lunch at a water-front cafĂ©!). Just as we were preparing to leave, four old-time steamer ferries arrived from Stockholm for a yearly celebration. They were welcomed by Vaxholm’s Marine Band and dozens of excited spectators. (We had originally planned to ride one of these boats, which are in regular ferry service, but they were all booked for this special occasion.) Our modern ferry left soon after the vintage ones arrived, so we got to see them arrive and dock from both the land and the water. And 30 minutes later, we were back walking the waterfront in Stockholm.

An appreciative crowd listens as the Marine Band welcomes the classic ferries to Vaxholm

We take our leave from Vaxholm on the ferry as the classic steamers arrive

Our Airbnb room was in one of the more prosperous areas of the city, in an older but well-appointed building. Our room had a floor-to-ceiling Swedish stove, covered in plain white glazed tiles. While it has been replaced by more modern heating (hot water, I think), it is impressive. It spoke strongly of blowing snow and long, very cold nights. Next to our room was the dining room with a similar but more elaborate stove. The next room over was the living room, with a truly remarkable fireplace, covered with intricately worked glazed tiles.

Well-furnished living room

Detail of the amazing ceramic fireplace

Paula in the dining room/office. Note the Swedish stove behind her!

Both the living and dining rooms were fully furnished in period furniture, probably from the 1920s. As I said, this was an up-scale part of the city, and everything was very well done. Our host left shortly after we arrived, so we never heard any stories about who lived here or what they did, but the room looked ready to host a soiree for a dozen or so guests. It was pretty fantastic, like living in one of those cultural museums showing what life was like back when. Except, we got to sit in the chairs!


Why barns are red

In 1674 the Swedish nobility erected a building for their use, called Riddarhuset or the House of Nobility, in Stockholm. It was used for meetings and concerts. Made of red brick, it was greatly admired, and many of the noble families copied it for their country estates. But bricks were very expensive outside of the city, so the country houses were made of wood, painted red. The popularity of this style spread, and all the farmers wanted red houses as well.

The Riddarhauset today
It so happened that at this time copper mining was a significant industry in Sweden, and a by-product of the production was a bright red pigment that made fine paint, and, more importantly, was quite cheap (being a by-product and all). So, the countryside became dotted with bright red buildings, called Falu red after the town of Falun, where the copper mines were located. (As a side note, the copper in the paint made it a good wood preservative, but it was the low cost that made it popular). Later the nobility started painting their homes white and yellow, colors that were much more expensive. The farmers stuck with red.

Farm house in rural Sweden. Falu red.

Flash forward to the 19th century and a decline in infant mortality in Sweden (thanks to advances in health and science and all). Families got bigger, since more of the babies survived to become children. And heirs. Since only the oldest son inherited, there were more and more landless farmers. With improved transportation to the New World, many rural Swedes emigrated to North America. They prospered, and painted their buildings in the New World the traditional color from back home.

So barns in North America are red because Swedish nobility build a pretty building in the 17th Century.

As I’ve said before, we are not always keen on public buildings and monuments. But we did tour the Stadshus, Stockholm’s town hall. Among other functions it hosts the Nobel Prize banquet, honoring the recipients of that prestigious award. It’s a large, relatively new building finished in the early part of the 20th Century. Throughout our tour I was impressed by the commitment to equality of the people. The layout of the council chambers assures access by the public and puts all the officials on the same level. Displayed inside are numerous busts, not of famous rulers or legislators but of construction workers, the people who nailed the beams and placed the bricks. For the Swedes and Scandinavians in general, “equality” is not merely a concept, but an on-going reality.


Heroic statue in front of Stockholm's stadshus, the Town Hall, where the Nobel Prize ceremony is held

Inside the Stadhaus where the Nobel Prize dinner is held, all done in gold tile (eat your heart out, Donald Trump!)

We took another, short, train ride to Gothenburg, on Sweden’s west coast. Neither of us is sure why we chose this unremarkable town, although we did find the Volvo Ocean Race fleet, and we spent most of our short stop in Gothenburg at the race village. We have a previous blog about our time there.


Aside from that, Gothenburg didn’t leave much of an impression. The Volvo race, a couple of fabulous rain squalls (one with thunder and hail), and that was about it. We probably missed a lot.


And how can we leave Sweden without seeing a classic Volvo!

And, finally, what is this? I saw these wires coming out of downspouts in Sweden and Norway. Finally, I got it: a heat wire to keep the downspout from damning up with ice. Hard to imagine in the summer!

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

First Rainbows, then Reindeer


                   Written August 3, 2018
Although the May and June  weather in Alicante had been excellent, as it often is, it held a special surprise for us as we left: rain! And a rainbow. 

We were returning to our apartment after a visit to Punta Palo, just south of Alicante, hosted by Teresa, the apartment manager who has become our friend. It had been raining, unusual for this time of year. As we walked along the mirador near our street the sun, on its way down, peeked out from below the storm clouds. The light shone clear and bright on the buildings up the coast: then a stub of rainbow appeared out to sea. It morphed into a double, and up the coast, the far end appeared. (I noted which building; next time in Alicante we'll check for the pot o' gold.)

Double rainbow over the beach in Alicante, Spain

Early, so early the next morning we were on the street, our taxi waiting to take us to the mostly deserted airport. By 6:30 AM we were winging our way north. While I am certainly no fan of early morning plane flights, arriving before noon has advantages. We got settled into our Airbnb in Bergen, Norway with the whole afternoon before us.

             Bergen  (June 7)
As we flew in we were struck by how much the region resembled the Pacific Northwest. Bergen could almost be a stand-in for Seattle (if it were 20 times as big!). In fact, Bergen and Seattle have some kind of official connection, sister cites (or maybe just friends); in a park along the bay that surrounds Bergen we found a totem pole given by the city of Seattle! It was a bit bizarre, traveling so far to stand before this tall totem surrounded by lush greenery.


Greeting sign outside the Bergen airport. I'm still unsure about that "?" ?

A Pacific Northwest totem pole, gift from Seattle, WA!

One bit of good fortune we had was that it was not raining, Paula likes to check ahead for what the weather is doing in places where we will be going. For four months straight, it rained every day in Bergen. In fact, rain is one of Bergen’s claims to fame. Our days there, though, were sunny and bright. In fact, although we didn’t know it at the time, this was the start of a sunny streak that would follow us all the way through Scandinavia, Scotland, and Northern England to London!

I liked Bergen, in spite of the lack of rain J! It has a long history, and was a key element of the trading network build up by the Hanseatic League* in the High Middle Ages. The Norwegians (or whatever the residents were called then; modern Norway was only established early in the 19th Century) traded cod, an oily fish that could be dried and kept for long periods, an important “feature” in an era with no refrigeration! The original Hanseatic buildings are still preserved on Bergen’s seafront, although we chose not to visit them.

* An early trade and defensive organization that spread throughout Northern and Central Europe in the 13th, 14th, and 15th Centuries. We were to learn more about it in Hamburg.


Bergen's water front; this once was Norway's major port


Of more interest to us was the massive fish market that’s been going strong for several centuries; the funicular climbing the steep hill across the harbor; the amusing local art, and the Teslas!  I saw enough of these electric cars that I began to check license plates to verify I wasn’t seeing the same car over and over, because Bergen really is a small town. I found there are a great many electric cars of various makes. Our Airbnb host explained that the Norwegian government, to encourage the use of renewables, offered free passage to electric vehicles on toll roads. Ah! Then the incentive was removed (and everyone was left wondering, now I’m stuck with this crappy car…).

The fish market. Great meals here at a good (for Norway!) price.
Dried cod is still availabe in the market,but pricey: about $30USD per pound!
We toured the fish market, today given over to tourist restaurants. We skipped the old buildings, and on the day we chose to take the funicular (ride up, walk down, or so we told ourselves!), it wasn’t running. So we hiked up the steep streets for an excellent view across the town and the docks to the fiords beyond. And we found that the hill, forested and natural-looking from the town, is full of tiny roads and interesting homes clinging to the hillside. All in all, we got a really good feeling from cute Bergen! (Although it was sunny, and I kept wondering if I would be as keen on it with the “horizontal rain” our host described, cold and snow, and six hours of daylight instead of the 18 we experienced!).

Bergen really is a cute town. (Many of those cars in the foreground are electric.)

Is this the Argyll Forest? No, just quirky public art...

A couple of things struck me about the locals we saw: many of them had on backpacks – and not little day packs, like ours, but serious outdoor stuff. I expect they were doing errands, and carrying their groceries home, but I like to think on weekends those bags saw heavy use out on the trail. Also, there seemed to be a fair number of people on crutches; mostly young guys who seemed only temporarily affected. I don’t know, but again, I like to think these are the result of “outdoor” accidents: a skiing fall, a slip on the glacier. (Or maybe tripping on the roof of the Oslo opera house?)


Soon we were on the “Nutshell” train, the train that follows the “Norway in a Nutshell” route between Bergen and Oslo, giving a cross-section of the Norwegian countryside. It was a very pleasant seven-hour ride. We splurged for first class, only about $60USD with our senior discount. Free coffee and hot chocolate, large, comfortable seats with plenty of leg room, and quiet, pleasant fellow passengers (not that I would expect any public conveyance in Norway to be a hell-hole!) The mountains we passed through were fantastic, heavily forested with wonderful views (what we could see; half the time was spent in tunnels!).  Once above the tree line things were stark, with sharp peaks still snow-covered in early June, and small settlements alongside very cold-looking waterways. Paula found it strongly reminiscent of the Alaskan tundra; not surprising, since we were at about the same latitude. Once in the flats the countryside was pleasant but less interesting: gently rolling hills and green pastures.

Oh, one thing that struck us as a huge negative in Bergen and Norway in general: the high cost of food and especially alcohol. We paid 49 Krone for a can of beer in a store, about $6USD. A few days earlier we had been paying less than a third of that for una cerveza, seated in a restaurant!

Heavily forested hills on the "Nutshell" route to Oslo

A bit further up in the mountains. Snow and ice in early June, around a pristine lake.


             Oslo  (June 9)
We both liked Oslo, a clean simple city, full of lively people and impressive public art works. We were given to understand that Norway was a very poor country for much of its existence, being passed around between Sweden and Denmark for a few centuries. In the mid-1800’s as much as one-third of the population emigrated elsewhere looking for a better life, much like Ireland. And, of course, many of those dirt farmers ended up in North American, providing one American story teller with endless tales of Norwegian Bachelor Farmers.

The discovery of oil in the North Sea changed all that, and Norway is now a very rich country (in addition to the Teslas, there are plenty of Porsches and Mercedes on the roads). But its past poverty means its traditional ceremonial buildings (the palace, the cathedral, stuff like that) are quite simple and understated – overall, architecture in Oslo is rather bland, compared to other, older, European capitals. Meanwhile, there is now a huge construction boom on, with cranes dominating the sky along the waterfront – to some controversy, of course.

The Stenersnmuseet, Oslo's Museum of Fine Arts. Public sculptures in the foreground.

The Oslo opera house is fantastic. Made of white Carrera marble, from afar it’s distinctly reminiscent of a glacier. We only briefly saw the magnificent interior on our way to the roof, which is open to the public. People swarm over the steeply-slanted stone, as did we, looking over the harbor (and forest of construction cranes) with an ever-changing perspective. And I got to thinking: a place like this in the US would shut down in a few weeks, burdened with “slip and fall” lawsuits. But Norwegians are a hardy lot, used to taking risks while engaging in the many activities available in their rugged countryside. (And they know, if you fall off a glacier, it’s your own damn fault!)

Opera house roof and hikers. Note the construction going on behind!

A cute back street in Oslo that almost got ripped out for highway construction.
The Akershaus Fortress, overlooking the harbor (behind us)

View of the harbor from the Opera House roof.

Although we are not big museum goers (“moments, not monuments!”), we did take the effort to get to the Viking Ship Museum, where three of the best-preserved Viking longships are on display, along with numerous other Viking artifacts. The displays are fantastic, and the short video of Viking exploration and conquest was very well done. We were thrilled to see these ancient ships used for some pretty amazing voyages – those Norsemen really got around, from North America to the Baltic and inland to the Black Sea, and south to the Mediterranean. (Norse settlements in the north of France – Normandy – ultimately were to have a huge impact on English history and language.)


The Viking ship museum. Fantastic!

Intricate carvings on the ships prow. (Those Vikings were poetic and sensitive...)


But our time in Oslo was short; in only a couple of days we moved south to Sweden’s capital, Stockholm.


Paula watches the beginnings of a beautiful sunset in Oslo... at 10PM!

Public sculpture by Norway's premier sculptor, Gustav Vigeland. Imaginatively titled "Mann og Kvinne" (Man and Woman)


Vigeland Park, a huge park full of sculptures by Gustav Vigeland. Quite, quite remarkable!

Thursday, August 2, 2018

At Last in London


1 August 2018     Wednesday

We’re in London! Yeah! And why am I so happy to be in London? Well, it is a major world capitol, with lots of cool stuff. And that’s a good reason to be glad to be in London.

Here's a couple of photos of our new digs. We're in the Notting Hill district of west London (we watched that movie last night. I got all I needed out of the first five minutes). It's a very cute area, reminiscent of certain Victorian neighborhoods in San Francisco (built in the time of Queen Victoria... gee, who copied whom?) 

Home for the next month. That's our garrett window on the top right.

View out our garrett window as night falls over London...

But that’s not the immediate reason I’m content to be here. I am pleased to be in London because it marks the end of our eight-week odyssey that started the first week of June, in Bergen, Norway. We traveled by train and bus to the Seven Cities, then flew from Amsterdam to Glasgow and drove for two weeks through Scotland, including several days on the incomparable Isle of Skye, ending with a week in Edinburgh. Then a week in England’s Lake District, a couple days each in Newcastle on Tyne and York (dripping with history), and finally to here, the capital of capitals. Now we have a whole month to explore, and -- finally -- to digest all that has happened since leaving Spain.

Lots of catching up to do, certainly. Since we left Alicante on June 7th we’ve been on the road for 55 days, and have visited seven countries with 18 stops of two nights or more. Two thousand miles by plane, 1100 by train, almost 1200 by car (all on the wrong side of the road, note!), 390 by bus, and 22 by ferry (to and from Iona in Scotland). Oh, plus an average of over 10,000 walking steps per day for each of us (around 4‑1/2 miles average; some days much more!) So, yeah. Glad to be in one spot for a while.

In the coming weeks we’ll be writing blogs on Scandinavia and the incredible Nordic light (not the northern lights; that’s even further north, and a wintertime phenomenon), Hamburg, Amsterdam, and Edinburgh, for starters. Plus I imagine we’ll be talking about London some, too.

In the meantime, some representative photos of what we're calling the Seven Cities...


Bergen, Norway, our first stop

The stunning Oslo opera house. Or maybe a glacier? 

Stockholm

Gothenburg, Sweden, very much a sea-going city!

Copenhagen

Hamburg was a real surprise. This part of the Miniatur Wunderland, an astonishing model of much of the world, accurately recreates Hamburg's warehouse district (the Wunderland itself is in the second building from the right).

And finally, Amsterdam. What else needs to be said?






Tuesday, July 24, 2018

We Walk the Wall


27 June 2018
Running clear across Britain from east to west is an old Roman wall, known as Hadrian’s Wall. Built in the 2nd Century AD (finished around 127), it marked the northern boundary of the Roman Empire in Britain. It apparently served to tame those unruly Scots and Picts, and may also have been used to control traffic and commerce to and from the Roman areas (making sure taxes were paid and duties collected). Now a UNESCO World Heritage site, it is the largest Roman artifact in Britain (and maybe in the world).

I first heard of Hadrian’s Wall in connection with (I have to admit it!) George RR Martin’s “A Song of Fire and Ice,” better known as Game of Thrones. It is likely the inspiration for The Wall, a massive ice fortification to keep the People of the North out of Westeros. (The more I travel and learn about history and geography, the more I admire Martin’s ability to crib from things that actually happened to create his stories!)

Hadrian’s Wall, the real one, runs some 75 miles through beautiful countryside. It is now accompanied by a hiking trail, the Hadrian’s Wall Path. When we were in the Lake District two years ago we visited several parts of the wall by car. This time around, I really wanted to get back and hike a bit more along it. So yesterday was our Hadrian’s Wall day.

View from the car park

Wall climbs up the hill. Those Romans!
We drove about an hour and a half north and east to a conveniently-located car park that gives easy access to the Path. We paid the fee (£2 per hour; it’s hard to find a place to park anywhere in England that’s free) and got started. It was satisfying to hike on the same trail we’d been on in 2016; even more satisfying to get past where we’d had to stop before. We made it to the place called Sycamore Gap, a low spot between two hills, where a magnificent tree (presumably a sycamore) is growing. This tree was awarded the English Tree of the Year award in 2016 (where but England would we find a Tree of the Year award?). It’s claimed to be the “most photographed tree in England.”


A romantic view of the tree (from Getty Images, I'm told)
https://metro.co.uk/2016/12/18/tree-of-the-year-winners-are-pretty-spectacular-6331190/

My own view of the tree in Sycamore Gap

Much as I would have liked to keep going along the trail, it wasn't long before we had to turn back. The day before (our first in the Lake District) we’d done some ambitious climbing just outside our door in Braithwaite, and my legs were feeling every one of the 1200 feet we’d climbed up (and down!). Plus, it was threatening rain. So, we headed back.

Along the way we continued to admire the wall itself. Almost 1900 years old, and much diminished (stones were taken for other projects over the centuries; and why not, since they were just sitting there for the taking and so much easier than cutting and hauling more stone?). Now barely head high, it was a good 10 feet in height and 8 to 10 feet wide when built; most likely there was a walkway along the top for sentries. Every mile or so along the wall were “mile castles,” towers for observation and signaling, and every five miles a garrison. (And how far was a “mile”? One thousand Roman Legion steps; mille in Latin, from which we get, yeah, mile.)

The wall: taller than Paula!

Mile Fort 39 -- or what's left of it

It’s difficult for me, from my soft 21st Century perspective, to even conceive of how such a massive thing could have been built, and in just a couple of years. It was made from local limestone, and the stones were cut so uniformly and placed so well. Quite a piece of work! (I’m not sure I could even lift one of those stones!)

Lots of very even, carefully placed stones



We got back to the car just as the rain started (it seems it always happens like that), so we left feeling both gratified and a bit disappointed – there is, after all, so much more to see! We took refuge at a pub nearby, the Twice Brewed Inn, had some coffee and biscuits and thought about getting back up here sometime. There are groups that walk the whole length of the wall, from coast to coast, over a period of five or seven days. Paula spoke to the desk clerk at the Inn as a man brought in packs and bags from hikers who would be arriving later, to spend the night after a long day on the trail. And yes, there is a network of inns and hotels all along the wall, and companies that will move baggage between them, so hikers can focus on hiking. Our wheels started spinning… there’s so many possibilities!

 
A much-deserved rest at Twice Brewed

So, I guess this kind of overcast is pretty standard, then?






 “Once its construction was finished, it is thought to have been covered in plaster and then whitewashed: its shining surface reflected the sunlight and was visible for miles around.
                        --- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hadrian%27s_Wall

         "...reflected the sunlight and was visible for miles around." Gosh, that sounds like another wall I heard of!


up next: End of the week we leave for Newcastle for two days; then York for two days; then to London for the month of August. Awesome!