europe

Feline Border Control

I’m currently reading Nick Hunt’s fantastic book Walking the Woods and the Water, a beautifully written re-tracing of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s epic walk from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul – albeit in a very different age. Leigh Fermor is one of my absolute favourite writers and people (I do plan to write a longer post on exactly why his work has meant so much to me and countless other wanderlusters in the near future) and I wanted to share a quote from Hunt’s version of the journey that particularly resonated with me. He’s just entered Bavaria – a land dear to my heart – and describes the experience of crossing the unassuming border into Austria:

Austria lay down a nondescript road that looked like it could only end in a suburban cul-de-sac, but brought me instead to the green Saalach river, where nothing stirred but a ginger cat picking its way across the bank.”

This sentence conjured up so many echoes of my own time living on a nondescript border with Austria, reached by its own footbridge over the Saalach’s mother river, and its own precocious ginger cat that patrolled the borderland. Perhaps there are hordes of them across Europe – feline guardians of an increasingly integrated continent. Perhaps it’s the same cat zealously making its way up the Salzach’s tributaries in the way that Leigh Fermor and Hunt and countless travellers before them have traversed lands guided solely by a river. Or perhaps I just need to step away from the travel literature for a bit. cropped-a023701-r1-02-2a1.jpg

Underrated Travel Destinations: Grenoble

  Grenoble, known in France as “the Capital of the Alps”, is a beautiful little city that lies at the foot of the mountains. It’s in easy reach of skiing/hiking/climbing opportunities, with lots of sights to see and things to do – and yet I very rarely meet anyone non-French who has visited or even heard of it.  I experienced Grenoble the way all cities should ideally be experienced: by visiting someone living there (admittedly an Australian friend doing her Erasmus year at the university – still counts). It’s a really great size as it’s no metropolis but is still big enough to have plenty of diversity in shopping and food and nightlife, but you can just as easily hop on the cable car and be in the fresh mountain air with a magnificent view within a few minutes. It’s a student town, and visiting the mountain-flanked campus of the m
ultiple universities is well worth the tram ride. It also means there’s a great variety of nightlife, something I’ve found that French student towns are pretty good at (next up: Lyon). The main attraction is of course the Bastille, the fortifications that sit on the mountainside above Grenoble and offer an amazinF1000016g view out over the city and beyond towards the snow-capped mountains. Getting up there in the fab little cable cars is half the fun, but there are also plenty of walks to be done round and about the Bastille, as well as a terrifying old smugglers’ tunnel passage through the mountains in which I had an experience reminiscent of what the Fellowship of the Ring went through in the Mines of Moria. The Museum of Grenoble is another French favourite, a fantastic space with a really excellent and well-curated collection of art and general history of the city – it’s definitely up there in my list of top European galleries. And it’s not just an internal tourism hub, as two of my friends spent years abroad living and working/studying in the city and both attest that it’s a great place to live where the novelty doesn’t simply wear off after a weekend. Anyone who’s into snow sports might have far more to say about the city, but in short I highly recommend. Hop on a train in Paris and give Grenoble a visit.

Christiania: Free but flawed?

When telling people I was planning to visit Copenhagen this holiday, Christiania was a universal recommendation. According to its website, Christiania is “a self-governing society where each individual is free to themselves under the authority of the community. This society shall be financially self-supporting, and the common aim must always be to show that the mental and physical contamination can averted”. According to a Danish politician, Christiania is “a dwelling for people who wish to live in a different manner”. According to many Danes, Christiania is “a hippie squat”

The mural that marks the entrance to Christiania

The mural that marks the entrance to Christiania

In basic terms, Christiania is a “freetown”, an autonomous neighbourhood in the middle of Copenhagen that has existed as a commune since 1971, and whose residents (roughly 700 adults and 250 kids) struck a deal with the Danish government in 2011 to purchase the land off of them for a more official independence. Up-to-date information about this deal and the situation in general is pretty hard to find online, but since this loose agreement the community has been raising funds via selling off “shares” in Christiania for anything between 100 and 10, 000 krona (£10-£1000). Although officially subject to Danish jurisdiction, the area is famous for a rather more lax approach to law-keeping, particularly when it comes to the drugs trade – the aptly-titled titled “Pusher Street” that Christiania is famous for has been portrayed as both a tourist draw and guilty of scaring visitors away. Since the “junk blockade” of 1979 residents have maintained that hard drugs no longer circulate, but this is fairly easily disproven even if such sales are rather more low-key than the brazen high street trade of the softer stuff. Hash is dealt openly despite frequent police raids, with dealers dressing themselves and their stalls up in camouflage and many wearing balaclavas and sunglasses – according to the website this is because Pusher Street chooses to strike against the government’s misguided marijuana policy and emphasis camouflage netting over all the stalls to make hash less visible”. Christiania has its own “state” gallery, many outdoor art installations, and several cafes and food stalls. Signs above its exits proclaim that “you are now entering the European Union”.

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Christiana’s island from the other side of the water

We visited Christiania with a Canadian we’d met at our hostel. She passed on what she’d heard from all the Danes she’d encountered: Christiania is where Copenhagen residents go when they’re fifteen and want to try something illicit, a glorified squat full of hobos and hippies and drug addicts. It took us a while to find, as it’s situated on an island in the middle of the city accessible only by bridges; at first we thought the whole island was the commune, and were shocked at how clean and family-friendly and totally normal the streets looked, nothing different from the rest of the city. The sight of a giant psychedelic mural by a narrow door through which wafted a certain familiar smell informed us that the commune makes up only a corner of the island, and is completely walled off from neighbouring suburbia.

My first impressions of the place were that it has a similar vibe to Tacheles, the late and great artist squat in a similarly central position in Berlin. Graffiti coats every surface, dark doorways and passages lead to who knows where, weird refuse sculptures are dotted left right and centre. As we walked in deeper signs told us that we were now entering the “green light district”, where photography was banned along with running and sudden movements. Pusher Street is the central market square of Christiania, a cluster of camouflaged stalls run by men in dark clothes and often hidden behind the netting that hangs over their wares. We decided to make a purchase (when in Rome), and the experience definitely felt very illegal and pretty intimidating – and was the most expensive transaction I made in my entire time in Denmark. Which is saying something. After wandering round the remaining few streets (it really is just a collection of a couple of squares and alleys) we wended our way out through the exits and back into Denmark proper. We were underwhelmed, and unimpressed, by both the goods and the town.

I think there’s something fairly depressing about Christiania, and its not because all of the buildings look abandoned and most of the graffiti can’t really be classified as art. To me it felt seedy. It felt like some of the rougher areas of Amsterdam, aided by the preponderance of stalls selling tacky t-shirts and marijuana paraphernalia, and people with eyes like pies cramming overpriced hotdogs into their faces. There’s certainly a feeling of existence outside the law, but not in an “our town, our rules” kind of way… it’s more of the vibe of illegality. I’m all for decriminalisation, but that isn’t what Christiania is – its residents are painfully aware, as they have to be, of the officially forbidden nature of their merchandise, and they conduct their sales as such. For a town set up to celebrate independence and variety outside of the system, it seemed to me there was precious little variety of enterprise. We did come across Danish people who commented on the positives of the freetown, people raising their children all together and growing their own food, the stuff of idealistic 60s communes. Maybe all of that happens and it’s just not on show to non-residential visitors – but it would be a far cry from the Christiania that we saw.

Coincidences in Denmark

It’s funny how the more you travel the smaller the world seems to get. Last week I spent a few days in Copenhagen, a windy and expensive city that I loved and where I discovered numerous weird international connections. The first was an incredibly obvious link that just did not click in my brain until after my return to the UK; during my Springboard course at the beginning of the holidays (a really great programme for women in the workplace) I met Lise, a fabulous Copenhagen-or-thereabouts native who gave my travel buddy and I a much-needed insider tour on our last day in the city. She’s a fresher English Literature student at Worcester College, and told us all about the Danish university system that not only offers its students free tuition, but actually pays them £600 a month to study at all! – truly a superior nation. Understandably she has always dealt with raised eyebrows from parents and peers alike over her decision to study in England (who can blame them, Denmark is The One). BUT she did relate an anecdote about her ever-sceptical father returning from an international medical conference freshly convinced that Oxford might in fact be an alright place to go, having heard about its general reputation from people there. The day after my return from the continent I had supper with my mum who bemoaned a missed opportunity in the form of a Danish psychologist she had met at an international medical conference, whose daughter I could have made contact with in Copenhagen. Apparently she had set her heart on Oxford and had just started her first year at Worcester, what a shame we didn’t manage to connect.

But my favourite link was not as ridiculously coincidental as the above, but did form part of a generally hilarious evening. On our last night in Copenhagen we were invited to join a party in our hostel by a group of Dutch musicologists on a study trip from Amsterdam. Their dorm room was packed with three bunk levels of Europeans exercising their voices and limbs to 80s hits, there were glow in the dark stars on the ceiling and whisky all over the floor, and someone was harassing every new entrant with one of those head massagers that looks like a medieval torture instrument; a night already in full swing. Jaegermeister and rum and other horrendous alcohols were thrust upon us and I struck up a conversation with an excellent girl with a shock of blue hair and a Cage The Elephant band tee, who told me all about the time that her boyfriend had got her tickets to see the band and had secretly messaged the drummer before to get them to play their song and afterwards they had got so trashed with the roadies that she had spent all her money on that t-shirt and been broke but ecstatic the rest of the weekend. I responded in musical kind and told her that I’d been an Amsterdam the week before and seen a bloody FANTASTIC production of Lucia di Lammermoor, at which she squealed jealously and demanded how I got tickets. I told her my uncle was in the Dutch National Opera at which she squealed that HER uncle was in the Dutch National Opera, and had MY uncle performed in last year’s run of Gotterdamerung, to which I replied that he HAD indeedand then we squealed some Wagner at each other until she terribly formally asked us if we would like to smoke some marijuana with her and her friends.

I ❤ Europe.

 

Underrated European Travel Destinations

My friend Jazzy recently wrote this post about her top 10 travel destinations. Jazzy is fabulously and diversely travelled as I realised when I started to write my own version; many of her choices might not normally crop up on lists of top places to go on your hols, whereas most of my favourite cities are locations that hardly need advertisement – Amsterdam, Berlin, Havana etc. So to compromise I’ve decided to write a few instalments of some of my favourite underrated European travel destinations, and why they’re definitely worth a visit. Here’s three to begin.

Kotor, Montenegro

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This one also appears on Jazzy’s list, as it was our first stop in our travels around Montenegro with two other friends last summer. Montenegro itself is a tourist destination clawing its way into international view and is definitely worth a visit before it follows in the Czech Republic’s footsteps of becoming extortionately expensive and full of western Europeans trying to get a tan. It’s an incredibly beautiful country, and small enough that travelling its whole length and breadth by car or coach can be relatively cheap and easy, and offers some great views in the process. Kotor is perhaps the most scenic location of all, with its beautiful old town of churches and cobbled squares nestled into a mountainous bay of staggering beauty. We travelled there straight from Dubrovnik which boasts its fair share of sapphire-blue seas and delicious architecture, but Kotor still took my breath away.

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We only made it halfway up the old city walls, but the view was absolutely stunning and the next day we kayaked and swam through the wonderfully warm waters of the bay itself. Our first night also happened to coincide with the annual festival of “Bokoljska Night”, where the whole town turns into a party and we all danced the night away on our hostel’s balcony overlooking packed squares and drinking Rakia (a most hideous spirit that the country adores). Montenegrans are incredibly friendly and keen for visitors to enjoy their country and tell everyone at home how great Montenegro is, so every person we met was most hospitable; despite a town-wide power cut on our last night we still managed to feast on some of the best mussels I’ve ever had in a lovely little candle-lit restaurant. Really really recommend, along with the rest of the country.

Burghausen, Germany

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This is cheating a bit as I did not travel to Burghausen but was instead based in a village outside the city for five months last year. Having lived in the general area I can attest that its charms (although not to be sniffed at) are finite, and can be fully enjoyed in a visit of a couple of days – definitely in the summer. Perched on deepest Bavaria’s border with Austria (you can literally walk across a bridge into another country), Burghausen is home to an enormous chemical factory that employs most if its 20, 000 residents, and (rather more interestingly) the longest castle in the world. It’s also got a great little youth hostel, a scenic old town, and is surrounded by miles of beautiful countryside. There are loads of fantastic cycle routes to villages and particularly spectacular churches in the region, or if you prefer into the nearby monastery town of Raitenhaslach that is not only beautiful but serves up a great ice-cream sundae. If you’re culturally inclined and own a pair of lederhosen, then the annual drunken Mayweis’n shindig and erection of the traditional Bavarian may pole in the spring are events  not to be missed.

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However, in my view the best part of Burghausen is without a doubt its summer lake. It lies right beneath the castle flanked by castle walls, trees and a gunpowder tower, and makes for the perfect spot to laze a warm day away amid occasional dips into the water – or even a lap around the whole thing in a pedalo or a kayak. It’s a real hotspot in the summer months because it’s just such a delighful place to be. There are ping pong tables and volleyball courts and a cafe for you to sample a standard terrible German sandwich (or play it safe with chips and a beer), but the lake is long enough that if you want some alone time you can swim right out to one of its rafts or interesting sculptures and sunbathe undisturbed. My favourite thing to do is to while away an entire afternoon there until dusk, then climb back up to the castle and watch the sun set over the city. Fantastic.

Esztergom, Hungary

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I went to Budapest on an orchestral tour a couple of summers ago, and loved it. Its virtues do not need to be extolled as it is well-known to Europeans as super fantastic and great in every way, but I had never even heard of Esztergom before I visited Hungary, and probably never would have done if our lead second violinist hadn’t dragged us all off on the train to this city 30 miles outside of the capital. It’s quite a sight. The Estergezom Basilica is the largest church in Hungary, and is extremely spectacular – we spent most of our time there, exploring the outside and the inside and marvelling at views of the structure from every possible angle. The church and city have a rich history featuring siege and conquest and intrigue and enormous amounts of religious wealth that is still palpable.

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Although I’m a sucker for a good view, perhaps my favourite part of my visit of Esztergom was strolling across the Maria Valeria bridge into Slovakia. I love to walk over borders – isn’t that the joy of a united Europe? – and the view offered from another country was even more spectacular. I didn’t explore very much of the rest of the city and this was probably a good thing… a railway strike and an unexpectedly long walk meant only just catching the last on bus towards Budapest . The joys of central European public transport.

Coming up next: Grenoble, Utrecht, and many more…