A Travellerspoint blog

The fifth season begins

"Cologne is a feeling"

semi-overcast 10 °C

The first leg of the journey to Cologne - a train to Hamburg - involves a short sea crossing where the entire train is loaded onto a ferry. The train passengers all have to disembark for the duration of the crossing. I'm staggered by the hordes of people who flock to the restaurant - why would anyone want to pay through the nose for inferior food in a soulless plastic canteen crammed with dozens of other travellers? The crossing is only 45 minutes long so it's not as if starvation can be imminent. A shouting crowd of gypsies surrounds the currency exchange booth for most of the voyage, another situation that confuses me as the exchange rates offered are nothing special. I visit the deck at regular intervals - for whatever reason, I worry more about boat trips than any other mode of transport and being on deck seems to offer the best shot at survival if anything goes wrong.

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I change at Hamburg and the train for the second half of the journey runs late, depositing me in Cologne in the evening. It's the 11th of November, or the 11th of the 11th, and earlier today - at 11:11AM to be precise - the Cologne Carnival season began. The festivities are already in full swing and I exit the train station with the towering spires of Cologne Cathedral above me and thousands of revellers decked in fancy dress around me.

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I'll only be in Cologne for a few days and the main reason for me being here is as much because it's a convenient place to break up the journey home as anything else. When I booked my trains a couple of months ago, I had absolutely no idea that I'd be arriving at the start of Carnival, and it was only when I found that hotel availability was low and the few choices very expensive that it dawned on me that I hadn't timed things well. Thus I have ended up paying more for my Cologne accommodation per night than either Stockholm or Copenhagen and the hotel, though possessing no major flaws, is vastly overpriced even for its central location.

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It's been a long day on the trains and I'm tempted by bed, but I figure that I should have a brief wander around the city centre to check out the atmosphere first. The booze has clearly been flowing. Though the carnival season may have begun today, it will be suspended through Advent and the Christmas period and not really start again in earnest until January, so there is an imperative to begin with a bang, as the next couple of months will be low key. Drunken people stagger along the streets, discarded bottles, cups, and glasses being crunched underfoot. Music blares out of pubs that are so full that there are queues outside to get in. Drummers and trumpeters hold their own impromptu concert in one of the squares.

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There's an old fairy tale about Cologne in which a race of gnomes used to do all of the city's work during the night so that the human inhabitants could laze around during the day. This continued until one night a tailor's wife scattered peas over the floor of the shop, in the hope that the gnomes would fall on them and she might be able to see one. This, of course, just cheesed off the gnomes, who disappeared and were never seen again. This tale is commemorated by a fountain in the city centre. And when I walk through the city centre the morning after the start of Carnival, I'm impressed by how the modern day gnomes, aka the city's street-cleaners, have already been doing sterling work. The rubbish from the night before has been substantially cleared up and the pavements all hosed down, and it's only here and there that lakes of garbage can still be found.

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At the heart of Cologne, and dominating the skyline to the extent that it can be used as a reference point wherever you are in the city, is its cathedral or, in German, Dom. Though Cologne suffered dreadful bombing damage during WWII, the cathedral was spared by bomber pilots because it was such a good landmark to aid their navigation. It is a truly astounding construction, being the largest Gothic church in Northern Europe and possessing the largest facade of any church in the world - it's Germany's most visited building. The exterior is amazing, with gargoyles and statues in abundance, particularly around the entrances, and the two towers rise to vertiginous heights. I'm a big fan of York Minster and not just because I lived in York for several years, but from the outside I would say that Cologne Cathedral is a more impressive structure, even though it's filthy compared to the Minster.

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The interior is dominated by the various stained-glass windows, the oldest dating from about 1260AD (only 12 years after the foundation stone was laid), the most recent a decidedly modern offering from 2007 that resembles randomly coloured pixels and won't be to everyone's tastes. Behind the altar is a gilded sarcophagus supposedly containing the bones of the Three Wise Men - the original purpose of the cathedral was to house these relics. Not that there's any need to introduce an element of competition, but if the exterior of Cologne Cathedral surpasses that of the Minster, those positions are reversed when it comes to the interiors. Both buildings are worth going out of your way to see, though.

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The cathedral isn't the only religious construction of interest in Cologne - there are 12 Romanesque churches dotted around the city, the oldest dating from the late 4th century and most of them founded before 1000AD. The largest, St Maria im Kapitol, is perhaps the most interesting, though my visit there is greatly enhanced by the long conversation that I have with the chatty guardian. Now long retired from a career in the wallpaper industry, he reminisces fondly about his time in Oldham after the war, learning about English techniques in his particular domain. He gives me a tour of the church, pointing out the wooden door dating from 1065 that takes two people two weeks to clean each year. He thinks that Cologne as a city is in a bit of a trough at the moment, certainly when compared with places like Hamburg, but he seems inordinately happy to have the chance to practice his English. I'm amazed when I finally leave to see that we've been talking for the best part of an hour and a half. In fact I have more interesting interactions with local people in Cologne in three days than I managed in two weeks in Stockholm and Copenhagen - I'm not sure whether that speaks more about the relative sociability of the people in those cities, or that maybe I'm enjoying Cologne so much that I come across as more approachable.

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By a happy coincidence, Cologne possesses another of the few cat cafes in Europe - Cafe Schnurrke (schnurren means to purr). It's the smallest of the cafes that I've visited and, even though I pop in a couple of times, I only see two of the four cats in residence. They plod around showing little interest in the customers, but they'll submit to being stroked. The compactness of the room seems to force everyone into speaking in hushed tones and, with only a handful of other customers, the atmosphere is lacking. One of the waitresses tells me that the place is usually heaving at weekends, which I take as a positive sign for the future of the cafe, though I would have to say that it's the least exciting of the three that I've visited. A common theme of all three has been a similar demographic - predominantly women and groups of women, with a smattering of mixed-sex groups. I don't think I've seen any guys or groups of guys - except me.

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The lack of custom in Cafe Schnurrke though is by no means replicated elsewhere in the city. The evenings especially are very busy in the centre - I have a list of three recommended Japanese restaurants and I'm never able to get into any of them because there are literally no tables spare. I end up giving most of my dinner custom to a Chinese restaurant by the name of Big China, and it is there that I have my first taste of the local Kölsch beer.

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The furthest I venture from the city centre is to Melaten Cemetery, just to the west but still easily accessible on foot. It's generally quite restrained and in that sense not dissimilar to the cemeteries I visited in Stockholm and Copenhagen, but there are also several more florid and ornamental gravestones. In particular, I encounter a number of excellent angel sculptures. My eyebrows are raised by a grave dedicated to the King Size Dick family but further research indicates that this is the stage name of a German singer (Dick meaning fat in German and hence less alarming than it appears in English). There's also the strange image of a Grim Reaper - the only one that I see in the entire cemetery - being part of the same grave as a frog sculpture reclining on a stone. The best I can piece together from the web is that the parents of the young boy commemorated by the frog paid to have that added to the plot that already contained the Grim Reaper sculpture.

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One of Cologne's most famous exports is eau de cologne, a phrase that is now used in a more generic sense but which originated from a product created by a Cologne perfumier named Farina. That product is now called 4711 Eau de Cologne, referring to the street number of Farina's factory. The reason why Farina, an Italian, living in Cologne, a German city, gave the scent a French name was because at the time French was the language of high society. 4711 Eau de Cologne possesses a mild lemony smell and is cheap as scents go but, as a signature memento of the city, the 4711 Eau de Cologne shops do a constant trade. I buy a couple of small bottles and the saleswoman stresses that it's not a perfume and more just a refresher.

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The Rhine cuts through the middle of Cologne, with the city centre on the west bank. I make one trip to the east bank, crossing the Hohenzollern Bridge and its chain-link fence densely packed with love locks. The view back across to the cathedral is pleasing, especially as the day moves towards sunset. The sheer size of the cathedral's towers never fails to impress.

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In the north of the city I find a sculpture park and some Botanical Gardens which enable some pleasant strolling. Like in Stockholm and Copenhagen, overpasses and underpasses seem to be pretty much non-existent here, so if you want to cross the road then you have to wait at a crossing. So it's nice to find these green areas in which you can walk without those constant pauses.

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Throughout the city I see preparations for the Christmas markets, popular events for both locals and tourists, and I'm a little saddened that I'll miss them by a few days. I've really enjoyed Cologne and it's whetted my appetite for seeing more of Germany. I only speak very basic German but that hasn't been an issue, with almost everyone I've interacted with being able to speak at least some English. On my last night, I see a large Christmas tree being put up in the square next to the cathedral and it's a reminder that when I reach home it will only be a matter of weeks before Christmas is upon us.

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It's another day of travel to reach home, first an ICE train to Brussels, then the Eurostar to London, and finally a Grand Central to Northallerton. There's so much junk in my postbox that I can't even unlock it without pulling stuff out backwards through the slot, and I have to wonder why the deliverer of the free local rag thought that they had done the right thing by cramming their paper into the postbox instead of just leaving it on top. But I then realise that being irritated by this is a sign that I'm not glad to be home, which is itself a sign that I've enjoyed my time away. And that, strangely, makes me happy.

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[I have some logistical information about visiting Cologne 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.]

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Posted by mohn 11:59 Archived in Germany Tagged germany europe köln cologne deutschland Comments (0)

Probably the best capital in Scandinavia

Possibly the best cat cafe in Europe

semi-overcast 8 °C

Copenhagen is a straightforward journey from Stockholm, just five hours on a comfortable train with free wifi. It's an overcast day and the countryside we pass through doesn't engage my attention, to the point where I have to battle to not fall asleep. Things liven up slightly when we trundle onto the Øresund Bridge that crosses the strait separating Malmö and Copenhagen, but even there the pervasive cloud and a calm sea lack much in the way of excitement.

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The weather is crisp so I decide to walk from the railway station to my hotel. This stroll reveals that Copenhagen is even more full of rabid cyclists than Stockholm was, and here amongst the biking hordes can also be seen baby carriers and goods compartments. Apparently more than a third of the residents of the capital cycle to their place of work or study, a figure I don't find hard to believe. Once again, as a pedestrian I feel in a distinct endangered minority.

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My hotel is rather grander than I was expecting, despite being the same price as my Stockholm residence, but the money seems to be going on the impressive lobby and besuited reception staff rather than the tired decor of the room. It's in a good location though, and not just because there's a Tesla showroom nearby. Copenhagen turns out to be as walkable as Stockholm but it's still handy to be close to a subway station.

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I'm glad that I can mainly use just my own two feet, because the public transport system looks excessively complicated - you have to count zones and county boundaries in order to determine what kind of ticket you need. I save myself some mental straining by only using public transport on days when I know I'll be doing enough travelling to justify a twenty-four hour ticket covering all zones. The trains have plenty of dedicated bike racks and no-one treats bikes as a pain in the neck - contrast that with the looks you'll get if you try to get on a commuter train with a bike in the UK. The system seems to run on an honour basis but, on the one journey I take where there is a ticket check, no-one is found wanting. (Which reminds me that the metro in Stockholm is not run on an honour system - at one station I'd seen a guy vault the barrier to get in for free, and the chap in the ticket booth just looked at him open-mouthed.) If you so wish, you can sit at the front of the metro trains here and watch the tunnel go by. I also find a company offering Segway sightseeing tours of Copenhagen but such things seem to be a sight in themselves, which goes against my general travel policy of trying to keep a low profile.

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Copenhagen boasts one of the few cat cafes in Europe, Cafe Miao, and having visited a similar establishment in Vienna last year I am eager to see what a Danish version looks like. The set-up is not much different, with the main cafe consisting of a large area where customers can order food and drink and have the opportunity to interact with the cats. There's assorted feline memorabilia and some climbing apparatus, as well as a cats-only area where the animals can get away from the humans. However several of the cats here are inquisitive and will happily initiate contact with their two-legged visitors, which was not the case in Vienna at all. In fact the tabby, Tiger, is so intrigued by my stir-fried vegetables that he constantly tries to get onto my table, from which I have to regularly evict him. The white cat, Snehvide (Snow White), is a new arrival to the cafe and, though friendly to me, isn't yet on amicable terms with the other cats. My favourite is Guffe, a sleepy ginger who seems to get most of the attention from other customers. I return to the cafe several times, noting that its clientele is predominantly twentysomething Danish women.

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I find Copenhagen to have rather more of interest to me than Stockholm, even though one of its most famous tourist sights, the Tivoli Gardens, is closed, and another, the Little Mermaid statue, seems like a triumph of hype over substance. The statue is small, barely four feet tall, and rather plainly sculpted yet it attracts busloads of visitors. I see it for the first time by night, a surreal experience because a canoe safari is there at the same time and their bobbing head-torches provide the illumination. Frankly, the Gefionspringvandet fountain nearby is considerably more interesting.

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I spend most of my time plodding the capital's streets, even though there's a similar shortage of sunlight as there was in Stockholm. My hotel is in the Indre By, or Inner City, neighbourhood. The City Hall features some statues of what I can only assume are mythological creatures, but I don't know what the story behind them is.

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The Stock Exchange building has an excellent spire consisting of four intertwined dragons' tails.

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I read that the Order of the Elephant is Denmark's highest chivalric order, and around the capital can be found elephant emblems.

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I admire Rosenborg Castle, built in the Renaissance style, from the outside, and have a pleasant amble through the pretty, neighbouring Kongs Have (King's Garden), containing a statue of one of Denmark's most famous sons, Hans Christian Andersen.

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The district of Christianshavn contains Vor Frelsers Kirke, a church with an astounding spiral staircase that runs outside the steeple. It's a highly distinctive look but, with my dodgy head for heights, I'm not tempted to climb up.

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Nearby is Christiania, a self-proclaimed autonomous neighbourhood that is famous for its cannabis trade. There's a counter-culture feel that reminds me very much of Nimbin.

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Nyhavn is another of Copenhagen's most famous sights, colourful buildings on either side of an inlet in which a number of sailing ships are moored. It's very scenic and also a particularly touristy area in the evening. At 10AM one Saturday morning, I hear music still pumping out of the Hong Kong club, one of the tracks somewhat incongruously being a-Ha's Cry Wolf. A few patrons stagger out into the morning air. There's a depiction of Nyhavn in a window of the Lego store, Lego being one of Denmark's most successful exports.

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There are several enticing day trips available outside of Copenhagen and I take one to Hillerød, a small town to the north which is the home of Frederiksborg Castle, a stunning Renaissance building situated on a lake. I take the audio tour for the interior, which is the first audio tour I've ever done using an iPod Nano. The room numbering is somewhat bizarre, in that the number above a door indicates the room that you're currently in rather than the room you're about to go in to, but there is so much to see that you would need a couple of hours or more to really do the interior justice. The chapel in particular is a riot, with shields and cloths and paintings and stained glass and carvings all over the place. It certainly helps that I've picked the sunniest day yet of my trip, and the natural light inside is most welcome. Much of the interior is not original, having been recreated after a fire in 1859, but that does not detract from the splendour of the luxurious fittings. I notice that paintings of the Danish royal family from a couple of hundred years ago all seem to portray them with very large eyes - I don't know if this is a stylistic quirk or an anatomically correct representation.

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I've had so little sun on this holiday so far that I don't dare linger inside the castle as much as I might have liked. There are some extensive gardens and a deer park adjoining the castle, and I hasten out to see them while the going is still good. The water features aren't working in the gardens but I can still appreciate the details, such as the bushes grown to outline the shape of a crown. Unfortunately the sun decides that it's had enough, and I begin to regret not seeing the grounds first instead of the interior. However the deer park is still highly enjoyable, not because of the deer (of which I see none) but because of the colourful autumn foliage.

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Returning to Copenhagen, I stop off in the district of Bispebjerg to see the eye-catching concrete Gothic church Grundtvigs Kirke. Its plain interior only serves to emphasise the soaring vaults. Outside, birds wheel about its towers and in the setting sun its silhouette reminds me of an Indian temple.

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Following my usual MO, I also visit Assistens Cemetery in the Nørrebro district. There's little fuss and adornment about most of the gravestones but the cemetery doesn't feel like merely a place in which to bury the dead. People sit around chatting on benches and joggers crunch along the tree-lined paths - apparently it's a popular sunbathing venue in summer. There are a number of luminaries buried here, including Hans Christian Andersen and Niels Bohr, though there are umpteen signs for the former and not a sausage for the latter (though the owl on Bohr's funeral monument is distinctive). I see FRED written on quite a few graves but it's not a name, just the Danish word for "peace".

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Another pleasant place to potter around is Frederiksberg Park, a mixture of trees, open spaces, and the ubiquitous joggers. I also see a group of hardcore athletes doing hill sprints near the park's palace, their exertions in stark contrast to the families wandering along with young children in strollers.

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If it's possible, it seems as though the English language is even more a part of life in Copenhagen than it was in Stockholm. I see and hear English everywhere, with its usage in signs and shop names widespread - I encounter a burger joint called "Hot Buns", and find a bar with the slogan "You shake ass, we shake cocktails". It must be a bit of a nightmare for immigrants to either Sweden or Denmark, to have to learn not one but two languages, and it's not as if either Swedish or Danish is particularly close to English. A small illustration of this Sweden/Denmark/England connection comes in the form of Kenneth Branagh, who I see on Copenhagen's main shopping street, filming an episode of the (originally Swedish) TV series Wallander.

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I'm no more tempted by bar hopping in Copenhagen than I was in Stockholm, but I do attempt to briefly take the temperature of the city on its main nights out. Friday night is ludicrously busy everywhere, and even at 9PM there are plenty of "refreshed" punters out and about. Saturday night is conspicuously less hectic, and in fact even during the daytime there aren't as many people around.

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Foodwise, Danes are also keen on meatballs, here called frikadeller. I pop down the road from my hotel to Cafe St Petersborg to sample them, and note a few differences in the presentation - here they come with boiled potatoes, which beats pureed mash when it comes to mopping up stray gravy, and red cabbage is served instead of lingonberries. The serving size is also rather larger than in Stockholm. Though Denmark seems generally even more expensive than Sweden, this is perhaps the best value for money meal I have in either country.

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My time in Copenhagen draws to a close all too quickly, and I'm left with the feeling that perhaps I should have taken a day or two from my Stockholm itinerary and reallocated them to here. However that would have flown against the general Internet consensus of the relative levels of interestingness of the two cities, so I don't think I could have known in advance that I would feel this way. I've liked Copenhagen a lot, despite its expense and crazy cyclists. But it's now time to head for Germany.

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[I have some logistical information about visiting Copenhagen 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 04:08 Archived in Denmark Tagged europe denmark copenhagen scandinavia Comments (0)

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)

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