A Travellerspoint blog

Thank you for the music

Walk in, dance out

overcast 8 °C

I've come to Stockholm because of a lifelong love affair. I'm here to visit ABBA the Museum, an extensive memorial to the group that opened in 2013. I would be here regardless of ABBA's somewhat maligned reputation in the mainstream media, but a bonus is that I'll get to wash away the bad taste of Pierce Brosnan roaring his way tunelessly through When All is Said and Done in the film Mammia Mia! Though the cast of that film looked as though they were enjoying themselves hugely, and it can't be denied that the film (and stage show) have rekindled interest in the group in recent years, I don't view ABBA as kitsch or cheesy. I'll grant that some (but not all) of their lyrics are on the banal side, but to me pop music has always been about music, not lyrics. If I want my brain to be stimulated by words, I'll read a book.

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I was just a bit too young to catch ABBA live, with them splitting up before I had reached my teen years. Though my sister and I had all of their albums, I don't recall ever seeing the group even on TV, other than in music videos. It didn't help that I was living in Saudi Arabia, a country not known for its promotion of Western music, for half of their career. So, a bit like with the Beatles, another massively popular group that was before my time, my experience of ABBA was based almost entirely on listening to their music on a cassette. Unlike the Beatles, though, I loved ABBA's music then and still do now. Even as an adult, I've not been big on going to concerts, but of the four concerts I've been to in my life, two of them were by Bjorn Again, the ABBA tribute band.

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I'm also here in order to continue my long-term project of visiting different European capitals. I actually have been to Stockholm once before, a stopover of several hours at the airport when flying between New York and London back in 2005 (the cheapness of the ticket made the detour worthwhile), but that doesn't really count. All I remember from those scant hours is marvelling at the exorbitant cost of a Diet Coke (that hasn't changed), and watching the staff move around the terminal on foot scooters.

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The first company I worked for out of university had a Swedish branch, and it was the fervent wish of all my fellow new joiners to be seconded to that branch, convinced as we all were that the place was knee deep in statuesque blondes. Freshly arrived in the country, as I walk through the centre of Stockholm en route from the railway station to my hotel, the percentage of blondes does not appear to be appreciably higher than in Yorkshire, which I can't deny is a minor disappointment. But even taking into account that this is a capital city rather than the provincial English town in which I live, people are dressed smartly and with an eye on the conditions - there's none of the T-shirt bravado that pervades the Northeast of England in winter. There's also more of a cosmopolitan feel than I was expecting, with non-European faces in a minority but not a minuscule one.

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With Stockholm (and Scandinavia in general) notorious for high prices, I'm lucky to have found a decent hotel room for only about £90 a night. It's an Art Nouveau construction in a prime location on Strandvägen, one of the city's most prestigious streets, neighbouring a number of other impressive buildings overlooking a small bay. On the way, I pass the old bank where, in 1973, a hostage situation led to the phenomenon called Stockholm Syndrome being named. Close to the hotel is a theatre outside of which stands a bronze statue of the late Swedish actress Margaretha Krook - for those with cold hands, the statue contains internal heating coils in order to keep its temperature at 37 °C.

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My hotel room has some pleasant period furnishings, but I can't help mentally comparing it with the massive Premier Inn room I'd enjoyed at Manchester Airport prior to flying here - that was twice the space at half the price. One thing both rooms have in common though is a thick duvet, which is much too warm for me for this time of year. I have to sleep with limbs hanging outside of the bed so that I don't overheat. The door to my room opens the "wrong" way - into the corridor rather than into the room - though I will see this elsewhere throughout my stay, so it must be a Swedish design principle. The hotel supposedly is popular with people working in the film industry but, despite me sitting in the lounge most evenings drinking a beer, I don't see anyone familiar - the star-spotting will have to wait until Copenhagen (see next blog).

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The receptionist tells me that I've picked the worst month in which to visit Stockholm and I soon see her point. It's a good temperature for walking around rather than taking public transport, but sunny days are few and far between. Even when the sun does put in an appearance, Stockholm is sufficiently far north that sunrise is late and sunset early, plus the sun doesn't rise particularly high in the sky so you can find yourself blinded if walking in certain directions. It's a challenging environment for taking photos.

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More unsettling is the plight of pedestrians here. Along with the predictable movements of motor traffic and trams are more unpredictable dangers: jogging and cycling are both very popular, and joggers and cyclists can - and do - appear from any direction. These people aren't messing about either, with many cyclists going full pelt. Of course the residents of Stockholm are well used to such things and know how to avoid getting run over, but I'm not at all accustomed to it and, after a couple of close calls, I find myself checking nervously in every direction for two-wheeled terrors. It's slightly stressful to not be able to always assume that the pavement belongs to pedestrians only. Jaywalking is not illegal here but, with all these different road users to get used to, it becomes easier to just obey the signals. The amount of exercise going on around me in the shape of jogging and cycling no doubt also contributes to the general fitness of the average Stockholmare - I see very few fatties.

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The city is spread over fourteen islands but they are so interconnected that you might not even notice some of the individual islands, though you are rarely far from water. Many of the ferry services seem to shut down over winter, but for getting around in the centre of the city you probably wouldn't want to take to the water anyway. There's plenty of public transport available but the city is generally walkable. The underground is worth a few trips simply because the different stations all have their own character and design.

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I visit ABBA the Museum early in my stay. Just the thought of it, even though I have very little idea what it will be like, brings a smile of anticipation to my lips. And when I enter the place, that smile only broadens, with Waterloo thundering out of the PA system and setting my heart pounding. The museum itself is extremely comprehensive - not only does it give a chronological history of the group, with audiovisual exhibits every step of the way, but you can also see detailed backgrounds of each of the four members, tour costumes, numerous platinum/gold/silver discs, ABBA merchandise (including the clogs shown below), the helicopter from the Arrival album cover (see earlier in the blog), the original mixing desk from Polar Studios, and much else besides. I'm pleased to hear that Michael Tretow, ABBA's studio engineer, is a big fan of Two for the Price of One, one of my favourite tracks. With the group's music playing constantly, it's heaven to be immersed in those great tunes, even if it's half-term and the place is soon crawling with kids who have been dragged here by their parents. I'm sure I'm not the only visitor who leaves on a high, but the museum shop doesn't take full advantage of that by having only a modest range of gifts (I find literally just one pen, and even that is plain).

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However no museum can ever explain why certain songs resonate with a particular listener, so while my visit has been excellent and I would certainly recommend the place to any ABBA fan, it's still a mystery to me why ABBA's music makes me feel emotions that just never arise when I listen to the Beatles or Bob Dylan or Led Zeppelin or Elvis Presley or the Beach Boys or any of the other groups/solo artists commonly mentioned among the greats. Perhaps some things are destined to be ineffable and perhaps that's no bad thing. I'm just grateful that we have their music.

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The rest of my stay in Stockholm involves much walking around outside and in. Near ABBA the Museum is the Vasa Museum, dedicated to the Vasa, a large warship that sunk in the harbour on its maiden voyage in 1628. The main reason for its sinking was a design flaw that put its centre of gravity too high - its sister ship was built just one metre wider and went on to be one of the most successful ships in the Swedish navy. The Vasa was salvaged in the early 1960s and is a sight to behold. The ship is covered in ornate carvings and, though its immersion removed all the paint, there is a scale model that shows just how brightly coloured it would have been in its day - not my image of a warship at all.

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Not far from the Vasa Museum is Skansen, an open-air museum and zoo that reminds me of the Norwegian Museum of Cultural History. It contains buildings from different eras from around the country, including a couple of excellent belfries and some Sami structures. I'm not really a zoo person, but I won't be venturing anywhere in the near future where I can see indigenous Swedish fauna so I take the opportunity to catch a glimpse of some moose, brown bears, lynx, and reindeer. From here I can see the nearby Gröna Lund amusement park, closed at this time of year and its rides motionless.

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The central island Stadsholmen contains a concentration of sights. With much of Stockholm's architecture bearing more than a passing resemblance to that of other European capitals, I figure that the contents of its various palaces will also seem familiar and thus limit myself to just the Royal Palace. It doesn't disappoint, with ornately decorated rooms replete with paintings, tapestries, thrones, and OTT sculptures aplenty. Unfortunately the interior is dependent on natural light, and with little sunshine around it's rather gloomy inside, making it difficult to make out much detail. However I'm taken by the White Sea Hall, with its excellent trompe l'oeil ceiling suggesting a celestial horde in the sky above; Karl XI's Gallery, based on the Versailles Hall of Mirrors and where the Swedish Royal Family hosts a dinner for Nobel laureates; the Hall of State, an enormous affair with a ridiculous silver throne; and several rooms devoted to the various royal Orders, in one of which I see a medal for the "conscientious care of reindeers", only given to Sami people and only rarely at that.

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In connection with the Royal Palace, I also visit the Treasury, containing crowns and maces and the like (though a guided tour taking place at the same time makes moving around rather difficult), and the Armoury, full of armour, weapons, and royal carriages. The Armoury also contains an exhibition comparing the palace intrigues of Elizabeth I of England, Erik XIV of Sweden, and - bizarrely - some character from Game of Thrones, a series that I've never seen (or read). Outside of the Armoury, I see an Estonian tour bus, improbably dotted with pictures of elephants, chameleons, and lemurs.

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South of the Royal Palace is Gamla Stan, the Old Town, characterised by cramped streets and colourful, narrow buildings. It's also by far the most touristy place in Stockholm though not in an oppressive way. Inside the cathedral is an impressive sculpture of St George and the Dragon, partly made from moose horns.

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To the west of the city centre lies the City Hall. a stylistically odd building that combines stars, balconies, gold naked statues, and a gold tomb among its various ornaments. Topped by three gold crowns, one of the national symbols of Sweden, the City Hall is best known internationally as the venue for the Nobel banquet, which follows the prize-giving. The place is awash with Russian tour groups when I visit.

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Not far north from my hotel is the Historical Museum, where I spend a couple of hours catching up on Swedish history. One exhibit concludes that any collective notion of Swedishness has only existed for about a century, making it a rather younger country than you might think. The Gold Room lives up to its name in spades. I'm both worried and intrigued by the cloakroom, which appears to have no security whatsoever, but my coat is still hanging there when I finish my visit.

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I don't spend much time in Södermalm, a trendy district on an island of the same name, just to the south of Gamla Stan. However some of the best cityscapes of central Stockholm can be seen from Fjällgatan, an elevated street on its northern edge. I go there twice, once during the day and once by night, but the night-time view is less interesting than I would have hoped.

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I take one trip outside of central Stockholm, to the Woodland Cemetery (Skogskyrkogården) south of the city. There are no ostentatious tombs here, with small, plain gravestones the order of the day. Even that of its most famous resident, Greta Garbo, is only remarkable because of the number of votive candles in front of it. What makes the place is its very tranquil setting amongst hundreds of trees, producing a serenity that was no doubt part of the reason why it was given a UNESCO World Heritage listing.

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Swedish cuisine may not be universally lauded but I go to town on one of its mainstays - meatballs. Known as köttbullar in Swedish (which is confusingly pronounced with a sh sound rather than a k at the beginning), they are usually served in gravy with pureed mash, lingonberries, and pickled cucumber. I try them at a number of restaurants around Stockholm, including the atmospheric Pelikan, and conclude that there are definitely worse things to have for a de facto national dish. I'm assuming that it's in one of these dark restaurants where one or more mosquitoes gives me a dozen or so bites on my leg - after being nibbled in Salzburg in October last year, I'm no longer surprised that I attract mosquitoes out of season and in countries where you wouldn't expect them. I also try a cinnamon bun (kanelbulle), which is a favourite Swedish snack, but all it does is remind me that I'm not mad keen on cinnamon. With no Japanese restaurants in the town where I live, I also take the opportunity to visit a ramen restaurant, where the ramen contains the most, and largest, slices of pork I've ever seen in a ramen.

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One factor that makes Stockholm such an easy place to travel around is that almost everyone speaks English - not just young people or educated people, but pretty much everyone. I only have language trouble twice in my stay, once with a server in a cake shop in Gamla Stan (of all places, given how touristy it is) and once with a member of staff at the station, but on each occasion they immediately dig out an English-speaking colleague. I try not to assume that everyone will speak English, and initially preface my interactions with the Swedish phrase for "Do you speak English?", but this seems to cause confusion more often than not and eventually I stop using it. I hear English spoken everywhere, even amongst people who seem to be local, and sometimes I hear Swedish conversations into which bits of English are slipped. Signs and adverts make use of English. It's strange that a country whose native language seems much further away from English than, say, French does, should be one where nearly everyone speaks English. And of course my schoolboy sense of humour is intrigued by the preponderance of farts, slags, and sluts in the local language.

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There are various Swedish stereotypes that I read about, though not all of them are backed up by the empirical evidence of my stay. Apparently Swedes have an extreme liking for preserving their personal space but, being non-confrontational, won't make you aware of the fact. So it's a no-no to sit next to someone on the bus if spare double-seats are available, nor should you stand close to someone at a bus-stop. I don't notice this myself but perhaps this is due to such unwritten rules being suspended in Stockholm, which has a high population density by Swedish standards. A more obvious difference to the UK is that there is a great deal of tolerance for children - when I visit the Armoury at the Royal Palace, the number of strollers clogging up the place would have Brits tutting and shaking their heads in exasperation, but here there is only patience.

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From a tourist point of view, most sights don't open before 10AM or even 11AM in some cases, which means that it's impossible to make an early start. Visiting at this time of year, which is essentially the beginning of the off-season, also means that some sights have reduced opening hours or may not be open at all. Stockholm seems to be further than the UK along the route to a cashless society, as I see several places (such as the shop at ABBA the Museum) that only accept cards.

From a personal point of view, Stockholm is the first city in which I decide to rely on Google Maps for navigation. I have a Moto G phone which can cache Google Maps for all of Stockholm - I do the caching via the Wifi in my hotel, after which I don't need a phone signal. I can't describe how much easier it is to whip the phone out of my pocket to check on my whereabouts, rather than have to pull out a map. I don't need to rely on finding street signs to tell me what street I'm on, I don't have to fight with a folded piece of paper in the wind and the rain, and looking at a phone is such a natural thing to do in a capital city that I don't look like an obvious tourist. The main downside is that using Google Maps will erode my already poor sense of direction, but its ease of use is so seductive. On top of that, I also find that unless the light conditions are poor then my phone can also take passable photos, which means I don't have to dig my camera out of my bag. This is a major change in how I travel.

Stockholm nightlife has a good reputation but these days I feel as though I'm too old and losing too much hair to want to go out to bars and clubs on my own. The centre doesn't feel dangerous at night so I spend my evenings wandering its streets in the dark, finishing up with a beer back at the hotel.

In total I spend a week in Stockholm, and though it's pleasant and safe and civilised and generally easy to get by in, it doesn't particularly grab me and that's nothing to do with how expensive everything is. One thing I'm increasingly finding with European cities is that there are many similarities between them, courtesy of historical continent-wide cultural movements as well as events through the ages that have affected Europe in its entirety. As such, the cities that I've visited most recently all contain echoes of ones I've seen previously, which can perhaps make them seem less novel and hence less interesting. I would no doubt find more variety if I visited smaller cities and towns that had not been in the front line of historical change, but there are various reasons why I'm not doing that. ABBA the Museum, in particular, and also the Vasa Museum have been highlights but I don't think I needed an entire week here.

So, channelling the spirit of ABBA, it's now time for Another Town, Another Train hence I will say So Long to Stockholm and begin to look forward to my Arrival in Copenhagen.

[I have some logistical information about visiting Stockholm that is too dull to put in here - I'll add a link to my other blog when I have detailed it there.]

[I also took a lot more photos than just those shown here - you can see them at my Flickr account here.]

Posted by mohn 12:40 Archived in Sweden Tagged stockholm sweden europe scandinavia Comments (0)

Now or never

Spurned by cats in the City of Dreams

semi-overcast 10 °C

I like Vienna from the word go. It's Sunday, sunny, and the city's residents are all out for a stroll. The buildings around me have an elegance and gravity that's not from this century nor even the one before. There is a similarity to Paris or even parts of London, and it's a similarity that is most pleasing. As a tourist fond of moseying in arbitrary directions, I can already tell that I will enjoy myself here.

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The capital is ten times the size of Salzburg from a population point of view but doesn't really feel it. It's also surprisingly walkable and I rarely bother with the extensive (and excellent) public transport. Cyclists are still the menace that they were in Salzburg, with trams something else for the pedestrian to watch out for, but the width of the main roads mitigates against jaywalking.

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At the heart of Vienna lies St Stephen's Cathedral (Stefansdom), a Gothic and Romanesque construction with an eye-catching multi-coloured tiled roof, one angle of which sports a double-headed eagle pattern. It's just metres away from a whole string of high-end luxury shops, the house of God facing off with Patek Philippe watches costing tens of thousands of euros. Nearby, despite a rash of cafés, is a worryingly busy McDonald's. It's impossible to forget that this is a 21st century European capital, yet that modernity has settled in around the city's history rather than obliterating it. There is something from the past round every corner.

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Much as I enjoy the cathedral and the ludicrously overwrought Baroque interior of the Jesuit church, they are clearly of their respective ages and could never be mistaken for more recent creations. Similarly, the State Hall (Prunksaal) at the National Library, a truly awesome mixture of wooden panelling and vibrant ceiling frescos that ranks as an absolute must-see in Vienna, is a product of centuries past. I'm no architecture or design student but the one style that seems ageless to my eyes, wherever it occurs, is Art Nouveau, and the city has some peerless examples that I seek out.

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Vienna's version of Art Nouveau was called the Secession. The movement had its own purpose-built exhibition hall, the distinctive white Secession Building topped with a dome of sculpted golden leaves and with walls bearing details such as three stone owls clustering together. This local flavour of Art Nouveau has left its mark throughout the city.

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The Secession's most famous exponent arguably was the painter Gustav Klimt, with his most famous work being "The Kiss", an oil painting featuring gold and mosaic effects that looks strikingly modern over a hundred years on from its creation. It hangs as part of a small collection of Klimt's work in the Upper Belvedere, a palace whose decor is a fine example of the OTT Baroque era. I arrive at the Belvedere shortly after it opens and am able to admire the painting in the company of only a couple of other visitors - less than an hour later, the place is swarming with tour groups and it's difficult to get into the room, let alone within ten metres of where "The Kiss" hangs. The painting is one of the Vienna tourist industry's mainstays, with everything from snow globes to umbrellas bearing its image. I remember being slightly disappointed by the Mona Lisa when I visited Paris four years ago, as the painting, however iconic, just didn't move me in any way - for me, "The Kiss" possesses many more dimensions.

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The architect Otto Wagner is another representative of the Secession but I'd be lying if I said I'd heard of him before I started planning this holiday. His works are dotted about Vienna and unerringly draw one's attention, from the silvery studded front of the Post Office Savings Bank to the wonderful floral details on Majolica House. The look of the latter in particular is distinctive but timeless, and reminds me of Gaudi in that respect (though not in style).

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Perhaps Wagner's greatest masterpiece though is more off the beaten track. I travel to the western end of the U3 U-bahn line then strike out on foot. It's a dull suburban part of Vienna and the walk becomes even less appealing when a steady drizzle starts to fall. I trudge up a hill and past a cemetery, the graves looking bleak under a grey sky. Then it's through a residential area and into the grounds of a psychiatric hospital, where trees provide a bit of cover from the rain. There have been occasional glimpses of a golden dome through the trees and then, after labouring up another incline, there it is - Kirche am Steinhof, an exquisite little church with green and gold angel statues praying over the entrance.

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The inside is equally gorgeous, with a clean design encompassing stained-glass windows, mosaics, and a gilt altar canopy ringed by angels' heads. Mindful of the congregation for which the church was intended, Wagner minimised the number of sharp edges in the interior, amongst other custom features. I spend an hour inside, marvelling. Many of the churches in Vienna are built in styles that can be seen elsewhere across Europe, but this place is unique and a gem. For anyone with even a vague interest in Art Nouveau, Kirche am Steinhof should not be missed.

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The Secession is but one movement to have provided inspiration to architects and and artists in the city and I visit many other locations of interest. The sprawling Hofburg Palace was the winter residence for the Habsburg dynasty, and today is the official home of the President of Austria. It contains umpteen exhibitions, including the previously mentioned State Hall in the National Library. I carelessly don't notice that these all require separate tickets, thinking that everything is included in just one, and thus end up doing an audio-tour of the Imperial Silver Collection, Sisi Museum, and Imperial Apartments, none of which frankly would have been amongst my first choices. However there's always some interest available in seeing how royalty lived, even if much of the opulence and luxury is similar to that enjoyed by royal families the continent over. I learn that, at imperial dinners, guests were only allowed to speak to their immediate neighbours, and a course was considered finished only when the emperor put down his utensils. More intriguing is the napkin arrangement called the "imperial fold", a secret known only to a couple of people in the royal household even now, that was (and still is) used at state dinners for holding bread rolls. The Imperial Apartments are as awash with paintings, drapes, and ornate furniture as you would expect.

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I supplement this brief immersion in royal life with a wander around the Upper Belvedere palace, built as a summer residence for Prince Eugene of Savoy, one of Austria's greatest military commanders at the end of the 16th and start of the 17th centuries. Though my main reason for visiting is the Klimt collection, I get another dose of frescos, sculptures and gilt decorations. By this point, I have seen enough of the high life, and my subsequent visit to the Schönbrunn Palace (the old summer residence of the Habsburgs) is simply to see its grounds.

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On the subject of grounds, one great boon for Vienna's keep-fit enthusiasts is that the grounds of the Belvedere and Schönbrunn palaces are free to enter, and both resound to the steady crunching noise of joggers on gravel. Schönbrunn in particular looks like an excellent place to run, with plenty of flat paths but also a few climbs up to the Gloriette, from where there are views over the palace itself and to the city beyond. It's certainly a step up from my usual circuit in Northallerton through a housing estate. Though neither palaces' gardens have much in bloom at this time of year, there are still statues and trees and fountains to look at, as well as the buildings themselves.

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The Viennese architectural scene has had some innovative additions even in the last few decades. The 1980s saw the construction of a couple of idiosyncratic buildings designed by the artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser. Hundertwasserhaus is an apartment block like no other, with a garden on the roof, trees growing out of the walls, uneven floors ("a divine melody to the feet", according to the man himself), a higgledy-piggledy multi-coloured facade, and few straight lines. The KunstHaus Wien nearby is an art gallery and museum in similar style, though somewhat toned down by comparison. Hundertwasser was inspired by the Secession movement but his architectural designs superficially seem to have little in common with the clean lines of Wagner's work.

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Though the country obviously has a lot to offer in the way of landscapes, architecture, and culture, my main reason for first considering Austria as a holiday destination was Café Neko, one of the first cat cafés in Europe. Loving cats as I do, but with a flat that has insufficient room for one (and a lease that precludes them anyway), my cat interactions have been restricted to the occasional meeting with the suspicious neighbourhood cats in Northallerton. So the concept of a cat café, with the opportunity of meeting some cats whilst drinking a cup of coffee and munching on a slice of chocolate cake, is appealing indeed.

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The café itself is a pleasant place to while away some time, down a small side-street not far from the cathedral. It's spacious enough for the cats (and customers) not to feel cramped, and there's a feline jungle gym, not to mention walkways and shelves up high on the walls so that the cats can survey their domain. There's a small selection of food and drink.

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The cat population numbers five: cross-eyed and curious Thomas, two gorgeous Maine Coons, Luca and Moritz, a quiet tabby Momo, and black Sonia, whose bio on the menu warns that she is not for beginners due to her inflicting the occasional nip or scratch if she gets cheesed off. Sonia aside, they all seem even-tempered, and it's relaxing to watch them plodding about, sleeping, and sometimes scampering along the walkways.

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However it would be difficult to describe them as friendly. I visit the café on three occasions, and on none of those visits does any of the five show the slightest interest in voluntarily interacting with the customers. I say "voluntarily" because some customers are quite happy to scoop a cat up, or stroke it while it's sleeping, but I never see a cat actually wander over to say hello to anyone. Thomas comes over to have a sniff around my bag, but he ignores my proffered hand and, when I move to stroke him, he doesn't look at me but gradually lowers his back so as to avoid the contact. I only want to meet cats on their terms, not mine, so I'm not going to just grab him and force him to put up with being stroked, but I can't help but feel a little disappointed that I'm so unappealing to him and his friends. I guess my expectations were that cats in a cat café would be interested in humans, but I suppose it's possible that they're simply fed up with us. Or maybe I just have an off-putting English smell.

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Cafés, with or without cats, though, are very much a staple of Viennese culture. The concept of reading the paper whilst drinking a coffee, and spreading the activity over several hours, is firmly entrenched here. Though I tend to visit in the evenings in order to have dinner while writing up my journal, it's still a most pleasant environment - refined surroundings, waitstaff in uniforms, and no hassle whatsoever to get out when you've finished. The only slightly disturbing aspect is that, a couple of times, sellers of the local equivalent of the Big Issue come in to try to find custom - though I have no problem with them trying to make money, it's annoying when they don't take no for an answer. I'm not sure whether it's my friendly face, or the fact that I'm a foreigner, that encourages them to keep trying.

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Though Vienna is famous for its coffee and pastries, I'm not a big consumer of either, and there are other elements of Austrian cuisine that attract me more. I'm not normally much of a meat eater but it's necessary to suspend that constraint in order to try a selection of traditional dishes - Schnitzel of various kinds, Zwiebelnrostbrat (beef with roasted onions), and Rindsgulasch (beef goulash) among them. Most of my custom for these goes to Phoenixhof, a restaurant that happens to be both near my hotel and extremely good. You can tell when an order for Schnitzel goes in, by the subsequent bout of hammering from the kitchen.

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As a food-related aside, there doesn't seem to be a single decent Japanese restaurant in the city. In particular, there is nowhere selling proper ramen. I find this astounding - two million people in the city and yet not enough demand for even one genuine Japanese restaurant? Shame on you, Vienna.

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My travels elsewhere have revealed that cemeteries can often be surprisingly interesting places, and Vienna has a whopper - Zentralfriedhof (Central Cemetery). It's enormous, so big that there are roads running through it and a local bus route stops at several places within. It's multi-denominational, including sections for Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, and all kinds of Christians, as well as the default Catholic section (this being a Catholic country). Though most of the graves don't possess the spectacle of those in, say, Recoleta, the sheer size of the place is awesome. There are many musical luminaries buried here, from Beethoven to Strauss (Younger and Elder) to Schoenberg, but the only one whose compositions are even vaguely in line with my own musical tastes is Hans Hölzel, better known as Falco, who had a couple of Top 10 hits in the UK in 1985 with "Rock Me Amadeus" and "Vienna Calling". His grave is a most peculiar construction, with a small obelisk standing next to a glass screen depicting the singer in a flowing robe.

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Speaking of '80s music, for the first time in years I see a poster advertising an upcoming Roachford concert. A quick look at Wikipedia reveals that most of his chart success in the last decade has been in mainland Europe.

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In recent years, Vienna has ranked at or near the top of many global surveys of quality of life. Though such surveys include factors that a traveller will only encounter tangentially (such as the standard of education, levels of political corruption, etc), there's enough evidence from just a week spent in the city to support these rankings. I don't see any crime (though that's true of most places I've visited in my life), however it says something that the luxury shops in the centre of Vienna leave their stock in the windows overnight - in London, expensive items would be stored away out of sight. Public transport is excellent, certainly better than the UK, and it appears to run on an honour system - the one time that a ticket inspection takes place while I'm on the U-bahn, no-one is caught without a ticket. Recycling bins can be opened using a pedal, so you never need to get your hands dirty. There's clearly an emphasis on cycling and other outdoor activities, though there are many more smokers than I would have expected and smoking regulations seem to be rather laxer than in the UK. And coming from the UK, where I can shop at a supermarket until at least 10PM every day of the week, it's frustrating to not have any supermarket access on Sundays or public holidays, and even when they're open it's only until 7:30PM or so.

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If I were to consider living in Vienna, though, one of the factors of most interest to me would be the friendliness (or otherwise) of the local people, and that's not something I can draw any conclusions about after just a week here, as I have little meaningful interaction with anyone. One waitress I speak to says that the Viennese are not very nice at all, but in the next sentence she says that when she visited London she found the people there friendly and welcoming, which doesn't really tally with my experiences of both living in London for several years and visiting umpteen times as a tourist. Obviously, being a foreigner can sometimes work to your advantage and other times makes you a target - I would be inclined to think that the former would be the case in Vienna. Certainly in my time here I don't have any nasty experiences, but I can't really leave with anything other than a neutral view of the city's inhabitants.

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All told though, Vienna is an excellent tourist destination. I don't get through even half of my to-do list and yet I still see enough sights that will stick in the memory. That's also without having much interest in either the classical music or theatre scenes in the city, which would no doubt consume considerably more time for fans of either. Vienna is rewarding for idle potterers - it's perhaps not as vibrant as Paris, albeit cleaner and safer than London, but there is so much to see even for visitors who don't want to spend their vacation in museums and art galleries. I had wondered beforehand if a week here would leave me bored, but that turns out to laughably understate what the city can offer.

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However after a week my time runs out, as holidays are wont to do, and so it's back onto the train to return to Salzburg and thence England.

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[I have some logistical information about visiting Vienna (and Salzburg) that is too dull to put in here, but if you want to read that then please visit my other blog.]

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[I also took a lot more photos than just those shown here - you can see them at my Flickr account here.]

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Posted by mohn 09:58 Archived in Austria Tagged vienna austria europe wien österreich Comments (0)

The sound of silence

Not one of Salzburg's favourite things

sunny 16 °C

Having read about a cat café in Vienna several months ago, and then uncovered a train ticket that would get me from London to Salzburg for £100 return, it was inevitable that this year's holiday was going to be to Austria. The country might not traditionally have been able to rely on the combination of food and felines to attract visitors, but in my case that was enough - the landscapes, architecture, and music would all be gravy. It would also give me the opportunity to resurrect my command of the German language which when last heard in 1987 was gaining me an O-Level. Would a quarter-century of non-use have left me merely rusty or completely unable to utter a coherent sentence?

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Salzburg is in something of an Indian summer when I arrive, with the temperature a good ten degrees higher than normal for this time of year. This is not a state of affairs that pleases me, as I am very much a cold-weather person, but it's not something within my power to change. Fortunately I am a very slow sightseer at the best of times so I'm never reduced to a sweaty mess. Unfortunately I need to leave my room window open in order to keep the temperature at a decent level, which admits one or more mosquitos that enjoy snacking on English flesh at night. I must say that insect bites weren't an annoyance I was expecting in an alpine country at the tail-end of October.

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The city is set in appealing surroundings on the banks of the river Salzach. Though the Alps proper start a dozen miles or so to the south, there are several small mountains within the city itself, providing viewpoints across Salzburg and the countryside nearby. On one of these mountains sits Festung Hohensalzburg, the hulking fortress which has been watching over the city for the best part of a thousand years. Autumn foliage covers the trees, providing a colourful background in the crisp, sunny air.

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Though the fourth largest city in Austria, Salzburg is by no means a bustling metropolis, with barely 150,000 people calling it home. The old town is a magnet for both tourists and locals, a profusion of closely packed buildings with period charm. Its most famous street, Getreidegasse, is lined with shops whose wrought-iron signs contain objects indicating the type of merchandise being sold within - umbrellas, hats, traditional clothing. Even the McDonald's sign is of a piece with the rest of Getreidegasse, apparently after protests by locals at the usual golden arches. There's no shortage of churches, their steeples spiking up from the narrow streets below. The cathedral (or Dom), built in the early 17th Century, was designed to accommodate 10,000 people, which was more than the city's population at the time, but it's the funky ceiling in the smaller Franciscan church that most impresses me.

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The Austrian Tourist Board claims that, for 70% of overseas visitors, "The Sound of Music" is their primary reason for coming to Salzburg. Though I could probably take a stab at singing most of the songs from the film (due to learning them for piano lessons in my youth), tracks like "Do-Re-Mi" and "Sixteen Going on Seventeen" are perfect examples of why musicals in general set my teeth on edge, and having seen the film once about 30 years ago I have no wish to ever see it again. Thus it is strange to me that the film has attracted such devotion from fans around the world and, prior to arrival, I am half-fearing that the city will be awash with Julie Andrews lookalikes trilling about the hills being alive.

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But Salzburg does not seem to be exactly busting a gut to promote its connection with "The Sound of Music". Apart from a few posters advertising tours that visit locations seen in the film, I see - and hear - little else suggesting a link with the city. Not even the busking guitarist outside the Dom delves into the Rodgers and Hammerstein songbook, and he must surely be aiming for tourist custom. It's almost as though Salzburg wants to distance itself from the one thing that purportedly attracts the majority of its foreign visitors.

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On the other hand, it could just be that the city would rather concentrate on its connection with one of music's giants (no offence to Rodgers and Hammerstein). As the birthplace of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Salzburg has not stinted on ways of keeping his name alive, over 200 years after his death. A statue of Mozart stands in Mozartplatz, there is a university called the Mozarteum, and the famous nougat/pistachio marzipan/chocolate concoctions known as Mozartkugeln are named after him. A Mozart Week is held every year around his birthday in January, featuring soloists and orchestras from around the world, and there is usually a good dollop of Mozart in the annual Salzburg Festival which runs for five weeks in the summer - the original festival hall has now been renamed the House for Mozart. Festivals aside, Mozart concerts can be attended most weeks - if not days - of the year at various venues around the city. A museum has been created in the house where Mozart was born, and a separate house where he lived later in life contains an exhibit about the man and his family. There's even a Mozart Cycle Path that takes in a loop beginning and ending in Salzburg, though I would imagine that more people arrive in the city at the airport that bears his name. And if none of that appeals, then how about a souvenir rubber duck wearing a Mozart wig?

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Interestingly, it appears that Mozart himself was not that fond of Salzburg, disliking his employer, his wages, and the conservative attitude of its citizens - he much preferred Vienna. But while Salzburg's embrace of Mozart long after his death may have been with half an eye to commercialism, it is certainly not the only surprising aspect of his life - anyone reading the letters that he sent to members of his family may raise an eyebrow or two that the man often called a musical genius could have such a scatological obsession.

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I'm not particularly interested in classical music so my own wanderings around the city are dictated little by Mozart's legacy, and instead it's the architecture that I focus on. It's a steep walk up to Festung Hohensalzburg but the views from the top in all directions are panoramic, even if the fortress interior doesn't require much time. One the way down, I pass a tour group on Segways. At the bottom of the same hill is St Peter's Cemetery, a small graveyard filled with well maintained plots that are available only on rental - if your descendants stop paying, then you'll be disinterred and dumped elsewhere. St Stefan's Cemetery on the other side of the river contains some grand tombs, though the graves of Mozart's father and wife are quite plain by comparison. I pass through Mirabell Gardens, containing the fountain at which "Do-Re-Mi" was sung in "The Sound of Music". The gardens consist of neatly manicured lawns and flower beds, with walkways dotted with statues, but at this time of year little is in bloom.

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But most of my time is spent simply walking randomly around the city, observing and enjoying its compactness. Such idle pottering finds an ideal companion in Austrian café society, where sitting around for hours reading the paper is deemed perfectly acceptable. Salzburg has a selection of cafés all serving a variety of different coffees and confectioneries, and over the course of my stay I take the opportunity to sample a few slices of the famous Sachertorte whilst people-watching in Café Tomaselli. There's never any pressure from the waiters to drink up and go, regardless of how busy the place may be.

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The act of simply walking around has a couple of unexpected quirks. There are cycle paths all over the city, some shared with pedestrians, and I have to condition myself to not make abrupt changes of direction whilst walking, for fear of getting a speeding front wheel somewhere painful. It also appears that jaywalking is either illegal or unpopular or both, as I encounter numerous situations where the red man is showing on the lights, there is no traffic within hundreds of metres, and yet no-one will cross.

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There are Americans here in unexpectedly large quantities. I had thought it was an anomaly that there were two American school groups on my train from Frankfurt, however Salzburg itself contains many Americans, both tourist and resident. Of course it's possible that they stand out simply because they are speaking a language I understand, but even taking that into account there seem to be more of them than I would have predicted - and certainly there are more Americans than English people. On the language front, though I do bust out the occasional sentence in German (and then fail to understand the reply, unless it's a yes or no answer), in general my interactions take place in English, and I meet no-one whose English is worse than my German.

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There are several other places from which to gain an aerial view of the city, apart from the fortress. On the way to Winkler Terrace, I pass the Felsenreitschule, a theatre carved out of the hillside in the place where the stone for the cathedral was originally quarried. It's not too stiff a climb to the terrace, which is clearly a popular spot for enjoying the cityscape presented by the old town to the east. Kapuzinerberg on the north side of the river offers a different aspect - I go there for sunset, though the atmosphere is not entirely peaceful due to the chanting that can be heard from below, football fans beering up in advance of a Red Bull Salzburg Europa League game.

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My one excursion outside of the city is to Hallstatt, a small lakeside town that is the pride of the Salzkammergut region. It's a bus/train/ferry journey to get there, during which we pass picturesque alpine buildings set amongst lakes and mountains, as well as rivers flowing with beautifully clear water.

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Hallstatt sits on a strip of land between the Hallstatter See and the Dachstein mountains. The hillsides surrounding the lake are covered in forests showing their autumn colours, and a steady sun streams out of the thinly clouded sky. The natural beauty of the setting combines with the quaintness of the wood-framed alpine houses to produce a chocolate-box scene. It doesn't take long to traverse the town, but there's plenty to enjoy on its streets, with a couple of striking churches and numerous appealing details - window-boxes packed with flowers, pikes' heads mounted on a wall, a mosaic of the town's coat of arms, cats of varying levels of friendliness.

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Hallstatt's population is roughly a thousand people and it appears that most of its businesses are tourism-related. It's currently off-season and many of these businesses are closed, but there are still tourists aplenty. The vast majority are Chinese, visiting in tour groups consisting of dozens of people. I hate tour groups, wherever they're from, as they have a tendency to clog a place up, lacking the nimbleness and flexibility of people travelling in ones and twos. Such is the situation here. However it's more amusing than inconvenient that the only food-serving establishment in the town that attracts any attention from these tour groups is the small kebab stall near the ferry dock, at which there's a queue every time I walk by. The stall's owners no doubt can't believe their luck.

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It's possible to take a funicular to the top of the mountain above the town, where I'm sure the views must be tremendous. There's also the entrance to a salt mine up there - this industry has been present in the region for thousands of years and is the reason for the "Salz" (German for salt) in the names of both Salzkammergut and Salzburg itself. Though I decide not to take the funicular, I content myself with walking up to the highest road in the town, from where I can look down onto the roofs and streets below.

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After Salzburg, I spend a week in Vienna (blogged separately) before returning for a night. I stay in a hotel close to the station, convenient for an early train the next day, the first leg of my trip back to London. Though my hotel is the nicest that I've stayed in in Austria, both inside and out, it's in a neighbourhood that could hardly be more different from the parts of Salzburg that I've seen until now - there are a number of betting shops and a couple of sex shops nearby, and even more bizarrely it seems to be a ghetto for non-Europeans. Over in the old town, preparations are under way for the Christmas markets and a skating rink is being constructed in Mozartplatz. The winter season will soon begin.

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One other thing about the hotel for my final night in Austria is that my bathroom contains an Austrian loo. I had read a great deal about these toilets in advance of the trip and had been hoping/dreading that I'd encounter one along the way. The defining feature of an Austrian loo is the shallow shelf that occupies the majority of the bowl, supposedly to allow easy inspection of one's doings - perhaps a habit worth getting into in a country where the cuisine is heavily based on meat, and hence has the possibility of ingesting parasites. I can't say I would particularly want to use one of these all the time (it's not too difficult to think of the reasons why).

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This last night in Salzburg brings to a close my two weeks in Austria, my first visit to the country and in fact my first visit to any German-speaking nation (I'm not counting Namibia). It's been a similar experience in some ways to my other European trips - lots to see, the excitement of somewhere new, and an ease of travel not much different to my own country. But like those other European trips, it has also lacked the sense of adventure that accompanies roaming around somewhere like China, where there's an element of mystery to ostensibly mundane activities such as a bus journey or ordering food in a restaurant. It's been four years since I was last outside of Europe, and though the urge to return to Asia is not yet a full-blown ache, it's definitely giving me the occasional pang.

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[I have some logistical information about visiting Salzburg (and Vienna) that is too dull to put in here, but if you want to read that then please visit my other blog.]

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[I also took a lot more photos than just those shown here - you can see them at my Flickr account. I have separate sets for Salzburg, Hallstatt, and Bad Ischl.]

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Posted by mohn 13:33 Archived in Austria Tagged salzburg hallstatt austria europe österreich Comments (0)

Winter training

Heading home for Christmas on the Trans-Siberian railway

snow -5 °C

I am not a hot weather person. These past ten months of traipsing around Southeast Asia have wrung litres of sweat out of me. My T-shirts are now faded through overwashing, my hiking boots in need of regular blasts of deodorant. My delicate Anglo-Saxon skin has been punished by the strength of the sun. I can't complain about the quality of my non-climate-related experiences in the region, but as the trip comes to an end I'm eagerly awaiting some temperatures below 0 °C rather than above 30 °C.

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Beijing in early November is certainly a step in the right direction, and my every breath is a plume of condensation in the chill. I love that almost painful feeling as cold air finds every corner of my lungs - it seems so clean and pure, even here in this murky, polluted city. I walk everywhere, my activity generating just enough warmth to stay comfortable. There's none of the wallowing in your own perspiration that accompanies even a short stroll in a Cambodian summer. My tan might already be starting to fade, but otherwise I'm revelling in these freezing conditions.

I'm due back in England for Christmas and have opted to return to Europe on the Trans-Siberian railway. Any journey of this distance screams to be broken up along the way, to experience the landscape at first hand rather than merely through a grimy window, so I'll be stopping frequently, first at Ulan Bator in Mongolia.

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It's a chilly afternoon when I depart Beijing but you wouldn't know it inside the train. I could happily wear a T-shirt and shorts, if I hadn't stuffed such clothing inconveniently at the bottom of my rucksack in expectation of not needing it. There's an unheated section at the end of the carriage, in which I find hanging a bag of sausages. The blanket that comes with my bunk remains unused as we rumble northward through the evening and night.

The following morning brings a first sighting of Mongolia - flat terrain stretching to the horizon. The presence of humans is suggested by the odd yurt here and there. An eagle watches our passing from the vantage point of an old telegraph pole. The countryside barely changes right up until Ulan Bator.

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It doesn't take long outside for me to accept the claim that this is the coldest capital city in the world. A refreshing -10 °C during the day becomes a bitter -26 °C at night, and this with the real winter still over a month away. I've been through New York winters where blocks of ice were bobbing in the Hudson river but this is much colder though with not a flake of snow in sight. I stock up on knock-off North Face gear, but even two sets of gloves and two pairs of socks can't keep my hands and feet from slowly going numb.

My nose reacts to the cold by running almost constantly, a situation that leaves it red, cracked, and bleeding from all the blowing. Whenever I eat out, I generate heaps of used tissues that don't make me any friends.

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Just before I leave the capital, I see the first snowfall of the season, though it feels long overdue in these low temperatures. At Gandan monastery, monks dressed in orange and purple trudge through the snow to morning prayers. They are watched by thousands of pigeons huddled together in the trees, feathers puffed.

There's only one other passenger in my compartment as the train departs Ulan Bator - a Russian professor. She thrusts cheese slices on me but declines my offer of chocolate biscuits, saying that only children eat such things. I don't get to hear her thoughts on my stash of instant noodles. My last image of Mongolia is of a group of soldiers standing in the snow, smartly saluting the train as we leave the border.

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The following morning we skirt Lake Baikal, its dark surface extending to the horizon. Fierce breakers are rolling in to hit the lake shore. With a snow covering up to the water's edge and trees standing leafless and spindly under a glum sky, the occasional pockets of wooden houses look uninviting from the warmth of the train.

Once the Russian professor has disembarked, I'm adopted by a Kazakh couple from the next compartment. They give me some chunks of what is described appetisingly on the packet as "horse flesh". We share no language, but a combination of gesturing and leaps of logic leads me to conclude that they are offering me $10,000 to drive a Land Rover from the UK to Kazakhstan (where apparently they're prohibitively expensive). The husband also indicates that his country is well worth a visit, being full of jaw-dropping scenery and curvaceous women constantly on the lookout for sexual favours - his gestures to convey the latter are unambiguous.

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My arrival in Irkutsk immediately tells me that I've crossed a significant ethnic boundary. Though there are still Asian faces, the blue eyes, blonde hair, and sharp features of a large proportion of the population speak of Europe. Fur clothing is everywhere.

Irkutsk itself is a promising introduction to Russian cities. The combination of Western European stone architecture and Siberian wooden buildings, offset by some drab Soviet-era blocks, is a pleasing one. With snow falling silently through the glow of the streetlights and gently dusting fur-clad heads and shoulders, the scene is exactly how I'd imagined a Siberian city in winter.

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The next morning, I leave the hostel with my hair still damp from the shower and it soon freezes up. This confirms what my steaming breath has already indicated - that Irkutsk may well be warmer than Ulan Bator but it's still sub-zero. Like on the train, indoor temperatures here are kept bizarrely high. There's a difference of about five layers of clothing between being inside or outside.

Gritting/salting/sanding seem to be unpopular, meaning negotiating the pavements and roads requires caution. I shuffle about as though I am infirm, jealous at how experience has enabled the locals to strut around with poise.

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I'm also surprised by just how little the birdlife seems to care about humans. Blue tits and great tits, which are among the most skittish of the visitors to an English garden, won't budge until you're about to tread on them. I'm not sure if the need to find food in this freezing climate overrides any fear of predators, or if people here feed the birds so much that they've become tame, but their confidence is Hitchcockian.

The local cats are as wary as any I've met in Asia but here they have evolved perfectly for the conditions, with shaggy coats and enough bulk to make a peckish Siberian tiger think twice.

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Heading west to Krasnoyarsk, it is clear we are entering a region that has experienced a fresh snowfall. The wooden houses are thatched in pristine white and the trees' branches, outlined and thickened by the snow, glisten pink in the dawn light. Even the spoiling effect of a dirty window can not conceal the beauty of the countryside.

Krasnoyarsk is nobody's idea of a tourist destination, with major local industries producing aluminium, refrigerators, and tyres, but the snow has blanketed some of its ugliness. The city council is even less of a fan of gritting than their counterparts in Irkutsk so I again slide my way around. Ironically, my hotel room's shower produces only scalding hot water, so I have to wash in the sink.

The city is not entirely charmless, with its churches being bursts of colour rising from the white ground. I visit a museum whose souvenir shop can only be catering to the export market, as their thermometers don't go below 0 °C - Krasnoyarsk often hits -40 °C in winter.

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My compartment-mates to Yekaterinburg are a young couple bound for Azerbaijan. They speak no English, though the husband is able to sing along to "Happy Birthday to you" when it comes on over the carriage radio. We pass the halfway point to Moscow and, somewhat later, leave Siberia entirely.

Magical in the grip of winter, the landscape holds my attention. As we trundle across a bridge straddling the Irtysh river at Omsk, I can see that the water is frozen. The railway runs past coniferous forests that bring Christmas back into my mind. I haven't been home for nearly a year, but it's impossible to share that mounting excitement with people who don't understand a word that comes out of my mouth.

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I generally try to avoid arriving in unfamiliar cities late at night, but the train schedule has forced this on me and the streets of Yekaterinburg are devoid of life as I trudge along them. With the temperature at -7 °C, a park bench is not a viable sleeping option so I'm dismayed when the cheapest room I can find is well over a hundred dollars.

Apart from my hotel bill, the most affecting thing I see in Yekaterinburg is the Afghanistan War Memorial, a sculpture showing a downward-looking soldier with a weary posture. The effect is one of resignation rather than pride, the snow covering adding an extra hint of the discomforts of war.

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The final leg of my Trans-Siberian journey is spent in the company of a dour older couple, whose frosty demeanour lasts for the best part of 1,700 kilometres. Approaching Moscow, we pass through suburbs of dachas, the country retreats that Muscovites use for summer escapes from the city. Though many are painted in bright blues and greens, those vivid colours are muted by the brilliance of the snow.

On my first night in Moscow, the temperature rises ten degrees, causing the snow to melt on the ground (good for walking) but also loosening whatever has been on the rooftops (bad for walking, as chunks of snow and ice plummet down without warning).

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Red Square acquired its name from the Russian word for "beautiful", that morphed over time into "red" due to the colour being an approximation of beauty in the long cold winter, however it's hard to find beauty in the grey and unfriendly sky. In these conditions, even St Basil's Cathedral appears leached of its garishness.

With Christmas so close, there are lights and decorations on the streets and within all the shops, stoking my own anticipation of the celebration to come. I was in Australia last year at about the same time, and was thoroughly disorientated by the southern hemisphere weather in December. For me, one important aspect of Christmas is that it comes at a bleak period, when being inside with vast amounts of food, a heap of presents, and friends and family provides a contrast with the wind and chill of the outdoors. Barbecues on the beach just don't have the same atmosphere.

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I visit St Petersburg and find the river Neva frozen over bar a central clear channel. Great slabs of ice are crushed up against the banks and there's a gusting wind eager to make its presence felt. A masochistic bride and groom struggle to keep their hair and clothing under control as they pose, goose-pimpled, against the backdrop of the Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral.

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It's something of a disappointment to then be back in England, where winter is defined by it simply being colder, duller, and rainier than the rest of the year. I can't imagine stumbling across Santa Claus' house here. But whatever the English winter's deficiencies, it's great to be home for Christmas. And I have memories of a proper winter elsewhere - the one I have seen from the Trans-Siberian's path across two continents.

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Posted by mohn 09:57 Archived in Russia Tagged winter railway europe russia trans-siberian mongolia Comments (0)

Adventure is just bad planning

Or, how not to see the Northern Lights

snow -2 °C

Norway might only have a population of about 5 million people, but it is a long and thin country. My flight from Oslo to Tromso covers a distance of well over 1,000km and the landscape becomes increasingly bleak and snowy as we drone on north. As I disembark from the plane, this marks the first time that I have ever set foot within the Arctic Circle. Unlike many other parts of the world at these latitudes, such as Alaska, it's relatively warm courtesy of the effects of the Gulf Stream but we're at the tail end of winter and there is still snow and ice everywhere.

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Even the main streets and pavements of Tromso are still partially frozen over, and away from the well-trodden routes the place is a skating rink. I have a flaky sense of balance at the best of times and I'm soon creeping around like an old man in order to minimise my chances of taking a tumble. Of course the locals are striding around in all kinds of footwear with no issues at all. When I do raise my head from staring at the ground, I can see that the town is in a beautiful setting, clustered beside the serene fjord and with snow-covered mountains along the horizon.

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It takes me a couple of days before I overcome my pride and dig out the overgrips that I bought in the UK precisely for these conditions, and I almost weep with the joy of finally being surefooted.

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Tromso is a tourist destination predominantly because of the Northern Lights. Its location within the aurora zone, its mild climate (by Arctic Circle standards), and its easy access by plane have combined to produce an aurora industry unmatched by anywhere else in the world. And that's why I'm here. With 2012 supposedly marking one of the 11-year peaks in the solar activity that creates the Northern Lights, and with March being one of the supposedly best months for viewing the aurora, I've come at a time that appears to maximise my chances of seeing something magical in the sky.

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The town is next most famous for its nightlife, which is surprising in that the enjoyment of its bars isn't really compatible with seeing the Northern Lights, as they both tend to be best at the same times of the day. I'm getting too old to be hitting bars on my own now but I'm on holiday, and the couple of occasions I do decide I fancy blowing £8 on a small beer, I find some good music and a clientele roughly half my age.

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It's not just the alcohol that's expensive in Norway. Eating out at even a modest establishment, such as a pizza chain, will set you back twice what you'd pay in the UK, more so when you factor in the drinks. My lunch generally consists of a heated-up panini from a corner store, which is still well over a fiver. Looking at vegetable prices in a supermarket, I see carrots at about £5.60 per kg (i.e. about 8 times the cost in the UK). However the hotels that I stay in both here and in Oslo are competitively priced compared with London, and the standard is higher.

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Tromso is by far the largest Norwegian town within the Arctic Circle, despite a population of only 70,000. It somehow became known as "The Paris of the North" during the 19th century, though the only vaguely credible explanation I can find for that is that travellers from further south bestowed the nickname when they found to their surprise that its inhabitants weren't all savages. A more representative comparison can perhaps be seen in the fact that Tromso is twinned with Grimsby.

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Its daytime charms are fairly discreet and it doesn't take me long to experience its main tourist attractions. Of most interest to me are the Amundsen connections. Though he is most renowned for his South Pole exploits, he led the first successful expedition to navigate the Northwest Passage (in the Gjoa), ditto for the Northeast Passage (in the Maud), and he was on the first overflight of the North Pole (in the airship Norge), so he was actually more active in the Arctic Circle than at the other end of the world. Tromso also marks the place where he was last seen alive - he left in a seaplane as part of an attempted rescue mission for an Italian explorer but is assumed to have crashed en route. Most of the wreckage, and all of the bodies, have never been found.

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The Polar Museum contains some informative displays about Amundsen and his compatriot and mentor Nansen, as well as a history of attempts to reach the North Pole by air. However most of the exhibits relate to trapping in northern Norway and Greenland. Whales, seals, reindeer, foxes, walruses, and musk ox have all had the misfortune to be hunted at one time or another, for reasons ranging from economic gain to simple sport. In these anti-fur days, it's strange to see how polar bear trappers such as Henry Rudi - who killed more than 700 of the beasts in the first half of the 20th century - were treated like celebrities. Animal rights aside, it's not like he was wrestling them - he was shooting them with a gun, so hardly a fair fight.

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The Polaria building has a unique design, representing ice floes pressed up against land. Polaria itself is devoted to exhibits related to the Arctic environment including the region's flora and fauna. I watch an excellent short film about Svalbard, a group of islands about half-way between the Norwegian mainland and the North Pole, which shows some amazing but bleak scenery. The Polaria aquarium contains some underwater tunnels, through which you can wander as bearded seals swim effortlessly around you.

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Possessing a similarly singular architecture is the Arctic Ocean Cathedral, built to resemble the mountains surrounding Tromso. Its enormous stained-glass window apparently lets in the midnight sun during the summer period when there is no night. Reaching the cathedral requires crossing a bridge that is exposed to a bitterly cold gale blowing along the fjord.

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With Tromso being such a magnet for aurora hunters, I'm actually surprised at how untouristy the place is. I see only a few souvenir stores, though I do wonder who on earth would want a troll figure as a memento of their visit. On Saturday night I eat at a cafe that I've seen praised on several travel forums but it's almost empty. And on Sunday evening it's virtually impossible to find an open restaurant. The fire evacuation instructions on the back of my hotel room's door are in enough languages to imply that guests come from all over Europe, though the flag used to represent the English version is some strange hybrid of those of Australia and New Zealand.

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But however untouristy Tromso might seem, there are still at least half a dozen companies going out every single night in search of the aurora. Because of coastal cloud and light pollution, you're best off getting out of Tromso in order to have a chance of good sightings. It's possible to hire a vehicle but, for a solo traveller unused to driving on such wintry roads, the cost isn't much different to going on a tour and the convenience factor of a tour is much higher. Though the most famous guides (e.g. Kjetil "Joanna Lumley" Skogli) are booked up weeks in advance, there are enough available seats overall that you should be able to get on a tour by booking on the morning of the day you want to go out.

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I'm not a fan of organised tours, and I've seen enough good photos of the aurora taken from inside Tromso that I decide to allocate 2 of my 5 nights to tours, with the remaining 3 nights left to my own devices. The day I arrive has the best aurora forecast for 5 years and I've even been texted by friends from the UK asking if I'm aware of this fact, so it's not a tough decision to sign up for a tour in such auspicious circumstances. Having lugged my DSLR and tripod from the UK, I spend a couple of hours in the afternoon acquainting myself with the delights of mirror lock-up and long exposure noise reduction.

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It's cloudy and cold as the 16 tourists in my group huddle and stamp their feet at the pick-up point. The minibus arrives, we all pile in, and the guide heads out of town. She says that the cloud is expected to break up in a couple of hours but she takes us to several places on the off-chance that we may get some clear skies earlier. There's a strong, gusting, keen wind that makes standing around outside quite unpleasant. And, unlike in most of the tour reviews I'd read, the engine is switched off whenever we stop so there is nowhere warm to retreat to if staring at unbroken cloud loses its appeal.

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Time passes but the cloud does not. It's exciting to think that this grey sky could somehow clear and erupt into the wavy green motions that I've seen in videos of the Northern Lights, but at the same time it also seems rather incredible that such a transformation could take place. Eventually the clouds start to tatter and we have sightings of stars and a resplendent nearly-full moon. But there's not even a sniff of the aurora.

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Several hours later, it's time to head back to Tromso. We've seen absolutely nothing and I haven't even taken my camera out of its bag, let alone set it up and used it. I'm also very cold and regretting not wearing my thermal leggings. Obviously, with nature there are no guarantees, but there's still a palpable sense of disappointment in the group, generated by a combination of the promising aurora forecast and the entitlement accrued from spending £80 per person. I get back to my hotel just after 2AM, irrationally disheartened. But the next day I speak to several people who had been on different tours the previous night, and I'm selfishly happy to hear that they too didn't see anything.

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I go my own way the second night, and decide to walk up to the cemetery behind Tromso in the hope of catching a display above the buildings and the fjord - a view I've seen in some of the best Northern Lights photos from the town. It's a steepish uphill walk, enlivened by the icy surface that constantly threatens to send me sliding back down. I'm wearing the maximal number of layers that I have brought from England - 6 on top, 2 on my legs - and the effort soon has me sweating. I would be less worried about falling if I wasn't also carrying some fairly expensive camera equipment.

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I reach a fork in the road and am confused by which direction I need to go in. But then I look skyward and, scattered among the few ragged clouds, I see faint movements. It's not blinding, it's not a deep translucent colour, and it isn't forming any of the otherworldly shapes I've seen in other people's photos, but it is most definitely green and it is most definitely the aurora. I enjoy it for a couple of minutes, breathing heavily through an open-mouthed smile, then hasten in search of the cemetery to set up my camera.

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Unfortunately the cloud is already moving in as I wend my way between the gravestones and by the time I've found a suitable spot and set up my tripod, the aurora has gone, barely 10 minutes after I first saw it. I know that patience is a virtue when it comes to the Northern Lights, so I remain in the cemetery until after midnight. There are a few further breaks in the cloud but nothing behind them, and the evening shows me little else but an overcast sky and the occasional snow flurry. I'm glad of my multiple layers of clothing, though the wind through the cemetery is blessedly minimal. On the way back to the hotel, I drop £9 on a cheeseburger from a kebab stall run by a Moroccan guy.

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The next night I decide to go back to the same place but a little earlier, however a steady snowfall sets in from mid-afternoon and it's soon clear that there'll be no chance of seeing the aurora from within Tromso. I take this opportunity to try a selection of beers from the local Mack brewery.

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The following day is even worse, with the snow starting around lunchtime. I ask the hotel reception guy about the forecast for the evening and he looks at some weather app on his phone with pursed lips. After a few minutes, he shakes his head then looks up and suggests that tomorrow would probably be better. This means that I will be pinning all my hopes of a mind-blowing display on my last night in Tromso.

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My last night will be my second tour, and the forecast for both the Northern Lights and the weather isn't good. However it had been even worse the previous night yet people had seen good displays, so I'm still hopeful, as is the guide. Though the same price, this is a much better-run tour than the first one. We get chocolate cake rather than carrot cake, the guide shows an informative slideshow about the aurora, and the minibus engine is left running constantly when we are parked, meaning that there is always somewhere to go to warm up.

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I speak to several of the other customers and am somewhat dismayed to find that they all saw the Northern Lights on one or more of the nights when I didn't go out on a tour. It's at this moment that I start to get a nasty suspicion that I've really screwed up my aurora-hunting. I should have gone on a tour every single night until such time as I saw the aurora. It was stupid to come all this way to Tromso and then not maximise my chances of seeing good displays. Sure, it is possible to see the aurora within Tromso but it's seen more often away from the town. And even though in my research I came across hardly any instances of people going on more than 2 tours in order to have success, it's careless for me to be on my last night in Norway still nervously crossing my fingers for some Northern Lights luck.

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This point is rammed home when we see little on this tour either, though I do capture the only aurora shots that I am to get on this trip. With the naked eye, I would never have even thought of pointing my camera in the direction that the guide is indicating as it looks simply like faint cloud. But I dutifully do as he says and, with a 30 second exposure, I finally see bright green. That's it, though, as this particular tour has a deadline of midnight to be back in Tromso, and of course we get this sighting sufficiently late on that we only get 10 minutes to observe it before we have to pack up and head for home.

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The one big positive about this experience is that my anticipation of seeing a good showing of the aurora has now been heightened significantly, and I'm already thinking about where and when to make another attempt. But I didn't really accomplish what I came here to do, and it's more than just the usual post-holiday blues that I'm feeling when I step onto the plane for the journey back to London.

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[I have a lot of logistical information about visiting Oslo (and Tromso) that is too dull to put in here, but if you want to read that then please visit my other blog.]

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[I also took a lot more photos than just those shown here - you can see them at my Flickr account.]

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Posted by mohn 13:23 Archived in Norway Tagged europe norway tromso Comments (0)

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