Friday, 23 May 2014

Aarhus: the Danish concluding chapter

And so Easter Monday morning dawned and I left behind a sun-drenched weekend full of Vikings, fine wines and country walks. I was headed for for Aarhus which was wet and shut. It felt like the whole town was closed, except for the bars and coffee shops (expensive ones - £5 per coffee!) but once I boarded the right bus, on my 3rd attempt, things started to look up - I arrived at M and V's house.

In defence of couchsurfing
As I am sure you are all aware by now, I love couchsurfing. Most people are attracted to its being FREE but the benefits extend beyond the lack of a bill. I arrived at the house and immediately made two friends; we talked of  linguistics, education and culture in our 3 native lands as well as in Denmark, which was native to none of us. I had been yearning for company, and these guys were rapidly becoming my favourites.

Aarhus: Vikings and old stuff.
Aarhus is another of Bluetooth's towns with a rampart round it. I was up early to see the best of it, the rain had cleared and the shops opened. Unfortunately Aarhus' famous Viking exhibition was shut; but there is amazing Viking treasure if you know where to look. The free Vikingemuseet, Aarhus is hidden beneath a bank on the high street. Descending stairs so as to to be at 'Viking level', the museum catalogues Viking Aarhus and particularly the shops along the wharf that occupied that very space. Think reconstructed Viking houses, a clinker walkway and artefacts displayed in cases in the very space they were discovered. The exhibition is amazing quality for an unsupervised free museum in a bank basement!

 (Vikingemuseet, Aarhus. Image: author's own)

Aarhus Cathedral is breathtaking. Its a 13th century cathedral, said to be the longest and tallest in Denmark, and filled with gorgeous relics. The cathedral is covered in anchors, the symbol of St Clemens the patron saint, and these amazing comic strips. From a young age I was aware the illiteracy of the faithful led to a need for images in churches; but I always imagined these to be wall-murals rather than comic strips with speech bubbles as you see in the image below.

(Aarhus Cathedral comic strip. Image: author's own)

Aarhus: A harbour, palace, Bambi and sunset
Another benefit of couchsurfing is that where hosts are able they often become the most excellent tour guides. My host V was no exception. We met for lunch at Mikuna a new organic, vegan restaurant and I had sensational chilli. Hosts take you places you would never think to go without the knowledge of what is possible. V took me out south of Aarhus  to the harbour, Queen's Palace and an amazing deer park.

(Aarhus harbour. Photo: author's own)

(Chasing deer. Image: author's own)

 It was a sunny afternoon spent chasing deer and imagining I owned a yacht with the great pleasure of company; nothing beats having a companion, not least to take photos of you on your travels! Thoroughly bonded through our shared sunny afternoon we returned to the flat via a sushi bar which did tasty take away. Anxious to make the most of the trip I took up V's offer to visit the seaside after dinner. Although the sun had near enough set by the time we arrived, the beach was still wired with atmosphere. The roar of the sea, the shoreline peeling back to reveal endless sea, jetties ending in ocean, with no boats visible - the seashore at Akrogen seemed a fitting end to my Viking adventure.

(Akrogen Beach. Image: author's own)

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Drawing as sight and expression: experimental art

Those of you who follow my facebook will have seen this photograph, it shows my line drawing of Ribe Cathedral and its inspiration, drawn in-situ at the Field of Heads.

To say I don't draw that often is a massive understatement, I never draw. To be honest, I think its because I think I'm not very good at it. And I don't like doing things I'm bad at. But sitting there, for a few hours recording the buildings of historic Ribe in the Easter sun was magical; and I learned two key things about drawing that you probably already knew.

I drew a bit as a child, but never really had the patience to finish things, less so to shade things in; the negative feedback in the school reports followed all the way until Year 9 when art became more about ideas than drawing and I started to succeed; but by then I'd found languages, human geography, politics and the work of T S Eliot.

Drawing escaped out of the art lesson confines and bled into some of my favourite lessons, history and geography. I always thought that the drawing activities were a bit of a waste of time, to help people whose primary mode of communication wasn't words, unlike me.

I was wrong. And I'm sorry.

Drawing as sight
As regular readers of this blog will know I love old buildings, particularly cathedrals with towers I can climb. I like to think I'm good at reading architecture to guess at age and influence, but drawing Ribe cathedral made me really look. I could see the different stages of construction with more clarity; two identical windows started to take on their own identities. Drawing Ribe cathedral as part of the surrounding landscape helped me to think about the city as a whole and how it had been shaped by this very physical influence. I can see with hindsight that drawing a cathedral could really help a young historian or geographer in their endeavours. Colour me humbled.

Drawing as expression
I understand that art doesn't always have to mean something, but I love it when it does (Wallinger's 'Where There's Muck' is my favourite of the Tate Britain collection). Whilst sketching the cathedral I became aware that as the artist I had great power over how you would perceive Ribe cathedral, especially if you have never seen it. I could accentuate certain facets, I could completely erase others! This editing process could be conscious or a mere result of my inaccuracy as an artist; but in the process of replication I was editing. That is some power!

The concluding post on Denmark is coming soon! And there's plenty of other things to tell you about, but those can wait for another time.

Thursday, 8 May 2014

Ribe: Local lamb, stars and 17th-century inns

Ribe is forever immortalised for me as Medieval, sun-drenched bliss. I hit a very good run of weather over the Easter weekend I spent there. I boarded a bus, then a train, and then a second, regional, battery-powered train from Vejle to Ribe crossing the width of Jutland East-West. I really enjoyed my stay here, I will wax-lyrical, its a long 'un.

Ribe is a Medieval town on the west coast of Jutland. It started life as a seasonal trading post in 700 AD. It experienced a massive period of expansion when it became a Cathedral-town under our friend Harald Bluetooth (who enclosed the city in a wall) and instated a famous bishop, Ansgar, at the helm. Ribe grew and grew with a harbour, watermills, and a significant role in the Lutheran reformation. It is also very close to the Wadden Sea national park, home to 12 million migratory birds.

Ribe Viking Museum
Ribe has several museums including the excellent Viking museum, which for half the price of the BM exhibition knocked its competitor into the water! The museum has a trilingual introductory video, as many artefacts as you can shake a stick at, and an exploratory zone where you can try the helmets and swords out for size. That's to say nothing of their experiential spaces which channel that Jorvik vibe. I suspect when the Viking Village is open this museum gets less traffic. Ribe also has a town museum and art museum, but you can't see all the museums at once.

(Ribe Museum: Channelling Jorvik and selfies in masks. Images: author's own)

Ribe Cathedral and tower
You know how I am with cathedrals and their towers. I have to get inside and I have to climb the tower. I had two experiences of this cathedral; the first time I arrived it was Easter Saturday, 11pm. The town square was pitch black, you could see all the stars, there was a fire in the grate outside. Easter services are always magical, something about meeting Jesus in the middle of the night always draws me. But the Lutheran, Danish service left something wanting in comparison to its Catholic counterpart in Aachen.

(Ribe Cathedral, feat. 13th c painting. Image: author's own)

The second time I visited was Easter Day - and the cathedral museum was excellent. I learned that the cathedral tower fell and killed many parisioners in 1283, inspiration for Ken Follett perhaps? The climb to the top of the tower (52m) was well rewarded, with sunshine, a breeze and a stunning view.

(Ribe from Commoners' Tower. Image: author's own)

Your options to eat in Ribe are far from limited! I enjoyed eating the view on many occasions. Having Ribe-boller (a Danish with vanilla and chocolate) from a local bakery, eating ice-cream and waffles from the ice-bars, I had an amazing burger the size of my head at Quedens (a renovated haberdashery-come-eatery) and ate lamb reared on the nearby Wadden-sea island of Mandø at the illustrious Kolvig. I really wanted to get a meal in at Sælhunden but it was always too full. Most of the hotels also offer meals but the menus are quite traditional.

There are lots of options here. I slept in real luxury at Weis Stue, a 17th-century inn which still has many original features from the wooden beams, and wonky floors, to 17th-century paintwork in the dining room. Staying here wasn't cheap (about £40 per night for a single room and shared bathroom) but for me was all about location - right on the Cathedral square, and character - they give you a big door key for late night escapades. Staying here was magical. There is a nearby youth hostel, much more central than others I have seen, I can't vouch for the interior but the cost sharing a 4-bed is £25.

(Weis Stue. Image: author's own)

Walk on the wildside
Much of Ribe is tightly knit together, you can see most of it within a half-hour walk. The Wadden Sea area offers lots for the nature lover but it seemed a bit distant without a bike. I did however walk the banks of the Ribe river, tour St Catherine's church, explore the old castle mound and chat to my mate, Dagmar. Lots of open space and sunshine.

 (Sunset at Ribe Harbour. Image: author's own)

One particular delight was sitting by the Medieval harbour in the 'field of heads'(!) sketching and enjoying the sunset.

So, if you like history, excellent food, sunshine and boats, Ribe is THE place to visit. Its a bit provincial, but if you fancy stepping back in time for a few days its hard to beat.

Promise next time I see you, I will be more concise!

(Signing out with Queen Dagmar. Image: author's own)

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Jelling: Good Friday and an empty grave

The regional train dropped me ostensibly in the middle of nowhere. I had arrived at Jelling - a tiny, station (shut I might add!). This was a momentous pilgrimage for me. I was going to see the Jelling Runestones.

Sorry, what?
When I was a student I did a degree that frequently received a response of, 'sorry, what?'. It was a veritable casserole of early Medieval joy - which for me took an archaeological shape, in the main. Visiting Denmark has been motivated by my desire to get back in touch with all those ships and towns that I wrote about more than 5 years ago. I say 'back in touch' because whilst I was meeting the objects in the flesh for the first time I already felt like I knew them intimately. One such space is the Jelling Memorials.

(Over-excited much! Image: author's own)

Jelling Memorials
So once upon a time there was a king by the name of Harald Bluetooth; as previously mentioned (here) he was a bit of a big deal in Denmark. Whether a goodie or baddie in your opinion, he brought the country together, he converted a large part of Denmark and made it the state religion complete with bishops, cathedrals and town-ramparts. You will be hearing lots more about Bluetooth over the coming posts (he was quite involved with both Ribe and Aarhus).

A place he's really associated with is the Jelling Monuments, preserved by UNESCO in 1994 for being outstanding examples of Nordic culture.

What's there?
The Jelling Monuments consist of:

  • 2 mounds, 70 metres in diameter and some 11 metres high. 
  • 2 runestones - 1 dedicated to Harald's mum and one dedicated by Harald to, er, Harald.
  • A little stone church between the two
  • Perhaps a stone setting like a ship?
  • A large wooden pallisade confirmed just last year.

(Jelling church from a mound. Image: author's own)

Why is it interesting?
I can hear you ask why I'm bothered by any of this so lets see if I can explain...

  • 2 mounds - a pagan burial practice perhaps? One of them is over an oak burial chamber - which is where is the body? Was there ever a body in there? If there was, who moved it? And why? The momentousness of an empty grave at Easter was not lost on me!
  • 2 runestones - Both feature some of the first references to Denmark; and one an early depiction of Christ, still in immaculate condition. These stones mark a very particular point in time in a very physical way. They are the 'birth-certificates' or perhaps even 'baptismal certificates' of the Danes.
(Can you see Jesus? Image: author's own)
  • A little church - when Bluetooth erected the stones in the 10th century Denmark stood at a cross-roads between a pagan past and a Christian future. The current stone church was constructed in the 12th century but stands on the site of several older wooden churches perhaps built by Harald who 'christianised the Danes'. During excavation in the late 70's  Krogh found a body, re-buried in pomp and circumstance beneath the church. Could it be that Harald moved his father from the pagan past into the church and a Christian future? This question followed me during my third year, as I looked at similar situations in England. Seeing the mounds in the flesh produced quite profound emotions in me; I'll admit I nearly cried when I sat on those mounds, tempted to quote 'The Wife's Lament'.

I eventually climbed off the mound and boarded a bus that dropped me in the middle of nowhere...what was round the corner?
(Where's the hotel? Image: author's own)

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Copenhagen - København

What: Seaport of the Danes, capital city since the 15th century, aiming to be carbon neutral by 2025.

(Copenhagen Harbour. Image: author's own)

Accommodation: Woodah Yoga Hostel. Amazing; novel space in an old veg. store. The decor was seriously stylish - perhaps the nicest I've seen in a hostel yet. Beds are contained in little pods - great for changing in private, and minimising the noise and light problems brought in with 24-hour hostels. The staff were consistently helpful, one even drew me a walking-route round Copenhagen! Location-wise: Vesterbro is sort-of trendy with slight overtones of dodgy, I'd compare to Bethnal Green in London.

(Woodah Dorm Pods: Image: Europalust)

What can I do on a national holiday? 

So many things! 
  • Go to Tivoli and pretend you are a celeb (they all gather there for the Annual Opening of the park), 
  • Go on a walking tour of the city (guides leave the tourist info office daily at 10am, for just 100 kroner see all of Copenhagen, learn so very much about Hans Christian Anderson, gaze at 'the Danish Big Ben' until you get run over by a hoard of cyclists. 
  • Sample the local delicacies at the harbour - I surprised myself in that I actually enjoyed pickled herring and gravlax.
  • So many churches to visit...
  • Climb the Round Tower - wide enough to pull the King's wagon all the way to the top!
  • Go see a show! I watched Evita, in Danish at Det Ny Teater! The service and surroundings were both stunning; and the staff all look like Buttons. 

(Kir Royale at the Det Ny Teater. Image: author's own)

Christiania - Freetown

One of the places I was encouraged to visit by my hostel host was Christiania. It is an interesting visit; in my head it was a lake-side walk with a nice vegan cafe half way round. What met me instead was this semi-rural anarchic community, the faint smell of cannabis persistently in the background. Christiania reminded me of Camden in that it is famous for being anarchic and controversial but the reality was fairly tame having been subjected to decades of tourism. Christiania houses about 1000 people in its various houses and squats, usually built by the inhabitants themselves. My experience was generally positive but I chose to leave after one circuit of the lake; you get the impression that if you hit a problem with a local, the police would be powerless to help you. Definitely would not recommend a visit alone or at night!

(Christiania. Image: author's own)

Crossing the Great Belt

I left Copenhagen by train to overnight on Fyn, and that involves crossing the Great Belt. To get an impression of how this feels, try entering 'Storebæltsbroen' into Street View; endless sea in nearly every direction. I did all my Danish travel by bus and train, this was neither the cheapest nor quickest way to travel but it did give me plenty of opportunities to check out the Danish countryside. 

Saturday, 3 May 2014

The land of sea, sails and bicycles: Denmark

Hello You!
Its a pleasure to see you! Yes, I am looking a little peaky. Its been a rough week for me with a fever and vomiting bug which I've only just about recovered from. So its time to share with you all of the exciting adventures I got up to whilst I was away in the land of sea, sails and bicycles; the place where there are 5 pigs to every person and about as many bicycles! The place where there are holes in your money and people genuinely enjoy being in the gym at 5am! I had a great time away full of variety, a lot of Vikings and one or two brushes with Harald Bluetooth (did you know the symbol for bluetooth is Harald's initials in runic?!)


So as a brief introduction to the uninitiated Denmark consists of three main parts, the islands of Fyn and Zealand, and the Jutland peninsula. Denmark has many other islands (407!) and territories including the constituent countries, Greenland and the Faroe Islands. As you can see from the map I travelled across the Danish regions heading mainly east to west with a brief u-turn near the end to head north and home; I flew in to Copenhagen, had a stop-over in Odense, travelled to Ribe and then up to Aarhus. I took a week to do this but it was Easter - you could definitely do it quicker! More to follow with regard to transport.

What follows is a diary of the trip; complete with local stories and adventures - details of accommodation and things to see and do.

But firstly some sweeping generalisations in a big list:

1. Denmark is really expensive - accommodation, food, even public transport is at the pricey-er end. I never thought I'd go somewhere more expensive than London!

(Danish coins in my hand. Image: my own)

2. You don't need Danish to do well here - everything from bars and restaurants to museum panels and even local bus drivers is in English (and Danish).

3. People are so polite - I wasn't harassed once. I know that doesn't sound like much, but usually on my own people always ask me for money, think they can offer me money for sex, generally make statements about me. This was really refreshing.

4. Being a woman in Denmark doesn't seem to be a problem!

(Cinnamon rolls. Image: my own)

5. There is a strong emphasis on sustainability of food supplies and sustainable living.

6. Its flat (except not THAT flat) so people bike everywhere.

7. You are never more than 30km from the sea.

8. The museums are ace. And their education system is really good!

(Aarhus Viking Museum. Image: my own)

9. Eating out - high quality, but high prices. I paid £28 for a piece of lamb one night, I know! But it was good lamb. 

10. There will be Danish flags everywhere. 

(Ribe Harbour. Image: my own)

Next installment: Copenhagen.