Pine, wind and snow

While spring has most definitely sprung in the west coast of Sweden, winter is still clinging to the valleys and mountains in the heart of Norway. On our train ride north from Oslo two weeks ago, winding through valleys as it followed a river for most of the way, it felt as though we were travelling back in time. Tiny pockets of snow gradually grew into piles and drifts, and ice spread its sheets over the river.
At our stop we were met by a cousin of my mother who for the sake of brevity I’ll call my aunt. We’d met her and her family in January when we visited Lillehammer, and it was as a result of that meeting that we were being driven up to a cabin on a mountain to spend a weekend Norwegian-style.

The road up to the mountain had been the site of an avalanche the year before, and it was still scarred, with many sections of road having been relaid and the riverbeds still full of the stones and earth that had been torn from the hills. It had happened at the end of winter, when the melted snow had come rushing down the valley, and had also taken a few houses with it. Luckily no one had died, but it did serve as a reminder of the massive forces at work in the mountains. Seeing the land up there, I can understand the old stories of trolls and giants, because what else could explain the tumbled boulders and steep valleys that seemed hewn by an indiscriminate hand?

The sun through clouds

The sun through clouds

We soon reached the cabin, nestled among a few pines and birches and at least half a metre of snow. Behind it loomed a snowy hill, and behind that a row of mountains peeping out of the clouds. My partner and I managed the feat of simultaneously losing one leg up to the knee in the snow as we walked from the car. From then on we were careful to stick to the path of hardened snow, and only went out with only shoes one other time, which was when we left.

The cabin, or ‘hytta’ became exactly my ideal image of a winter cabin. Made of pine in the traditional style, it was cosy, warm and spacious, and I instantly felt comfortable and at home. My aunt’s husband, who we had met before, greeted us at the door and we were then introduced to my aunt’s mother, who was very tolerant of our attempts at speaking Swedish and our inability to speak Norwegian, and who also partook of the beer and wine that was shared around as we settled in (and also when we got ready to eat, when we ate, after we ate, when we came back from an excursion outside, when we prepared for another…).

Cabin decor

Cabin decor

As we had arrived in the evening we then had dinner, and out of the windows we could see ‘the blue hour’ settled on the snowy hills behind the cabin. In April it usually happens around 9, when the sky is clear and the sun has just sunk below the horizon. The whole world seems to glow with a deep blue, and then slowly fades to darkness.

Sunset on a frozen lake

Sunset on a frozen lake

The next day we got up not particularly early (it being a holiday) and after a thorough Norwegian breakfast we bundled ourselves in warm jackets and ski boots and headed out to enjoy the sport that Norwegians are raised with. The snow was a bit sticky, but we were soon on our way along a track, my partner falling a few times and then getting the hang of it and myself falling a few times but never quite finding the glide. I could manage to shuffle along but I think I’ll need further practice to be able to fly over the snow. Particularly up in mountain cabins, oh yes.

After a few hours we headed back and needing a bit of food after our exercise we had a bbq. Unfortunately the snow was a bit heavy to use the outside bbq, but we made do with sausages roasted in the fireplace, wrapped in potato bread and followed down by beer. We then did the traditional nap, curling up to read or snooze as the afternoon passed.

Tracks in the snow

Tracks in the snow

I had noticed when we’d been preparing the skis that there were a pair of what looked like snowshoes on the verandah, so I asked my aunt about them and soon after we were trudging across the snow, mostly managing not to step on the soft snow and lose our footing. We did the obligatory snow angels and explored the covered woodlands. By the time we came back the water for the shower had been heated and my partner had enjoyed a shower, so I took my turn. Knowing that the water had been pumped by hand outside and headed in the laundry kept the shower shorter than normal, and as a result I felt even more refreshed. I was also a bit tempted by the sauna but I wasn’t sure if that would require a dip in the snow to balance out the heat, so kept that to myself.

My angel

My angel

Cleaned and refreshed, I then encouraged my partner to join me for a walk on the snow, heading for the frozen lake I had seen earlier. The sun was starting to go now by this point, so the light and shadows were stunning, the trees almost seeming to glow amid the smooth white drifts.

Pine trees in the sunset

Pine trees in the sunset

I took the pristine smoothness of the lake as an invitation to leave a message, in Norwegian of course, and realising that the appointed hour for dinner was approaching we headed back to the cabin, slowed down by gazing at the scenery and occasionally losing a foot or two.

A greeting on the ice

A greeting on the ice

Dinner and dessert went long into the night, in Swedish, Norwegian and a bit of English, and before we knew it our eyes were growing heavy and we headed of to bed for the last night. We awoke the next morning, and as we got ready for breakfast I was already starting to miss the view of snow skirted trees and distant mountains. After a hearty traditional breakfast, including expertly wrapped sandwiches for the journey, we gathered by the door with our luggage and sadly said goodbye.

A pristine lake

A pristine lake

Two weeks later I can remember the crispness of the air and the sparse beauty of the snow covered hills, and at least for now the scent of pine still lingers on my woollen jumper and scarf. I hope that we’ll be able to see the cabin in summer, to cycle along the ski tracks and paddle in the lake where I wrote a message on the ice, but if not at least I know that winter lingers for a long time in the mountains.

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West coast road-trip day 2: Picnics and castles

For the second day of the road trip we headed south. After breakfast we tumbled into the car and set off down the highway to begin the journey.

The landscape as we drifted further out of town was quite different to what we had seen the previous day. Southward lay wide green fields and larger expanses of farming land, with less of the forested outcrops we had seen in the north. We soon reached Falkenberg, an old town with cobbled streets and town gardens just starting to bloom. After a attempted walk to the beach via the river, resulting in factories and industrial complexes, we retraced our steps in search of a place to have lunch.
Our contribution to the trip was a basket full of sandwiches, fruit and ANZAC biscuits, and upon finding a picnic table overlooking the river, we set to and cleaned out the basket. We were lucky to have another day of fine weather, so had a pleasant time soaking up the sun and trying to decide who would eat the last biscuit.

A picnic in Falkenberg

A picnic in Falkenberg

The biscuit eaten and our stomachs full, we went back to the car and continued on our journey, heading slightly west and north.

Varberg is a very pretty town right on the coast, which is partly dominated by a giant castle. The first thing that you notice about it is how massive the walls are, and then the sheer numbers of Swedes arrayed along it’s base, soaking up the precious early Spring sun.

Soaking up the sun

Soaking up the sun

We explored around the castle walls, circling until we reached a small beach where there stood a Turkish bath complex. Of course. It was on stilts, and as we approached, admiring the graceful designs along the roof, we saw a naked old woman clamber down a ladder, pop under the water and then dart back up out of sight. She was soon followed by many other nude women, the youngest of whom gave a small scream when she ducked under the chilly water. I suppose it goes to show that 7 months isn’t nearly enough time to be inured to surprises from another culture, and also not long enough to be tempted to try them out myself.

A Swedish Turkish bath

A Swedish Turkish bath

A quick dip of a hand in the cold water made the decision easier. My partner and one of our friends took of their shoes and paddled in the shallows, their faces growing gradually more strained until they ran out of the water, exclaiming about how warm the sand felt, before inexplicably returning to the shallows.
I preferred to borrow gumboots and walked around feeling the weight of the water on my feet without the chill, admiring the castle walls and trying to avoid looking at the splashing underneath the baths.

Paddling

Paddling

Soon we had paddled enough, and crossed to the the cafe in the baths. Sitting out on the balcony, eating an icecream and lying back in the sun, I felt as though the seasons had definitely shifted onwards, and sunburn would replace occasional protestations about frostbite. It was lovely there in the sun, and we stayed for a while, letting the time pass. When we became restless we climbed up through the gates and ramps to the top of the castle. From the top of the walls we had a view out over the town and the sea, and spent some time gazing about.

Looking down from the walls

Looking down from the walls

A loud ringing noise drew my attention to an old fashioned bell hanging from a wall, and I wandered over, realised as I approached that the distance from the ground to the bell seemed to grow as I got closer. By the time I had reached the bell I needed a stick and a leap to just touch it. We all took turns, my partner managing to give it enough of a thwack to set it ringing deafeningly.
After which we descended the ramps, took another stroll around the walls, and headed back to the car.

All too soon we were back in town, being dropped off at our apartment and saying goodbye to our travelling companions. Given how many places there are around Göteborg that we haven’t yet explored, I’m sure we’ll be climbing back into a car and heading out on another road trip soon. And if we’re lucky, we’ll get the same sunny weather as this trip.

West coast road-trip day 1 – The Archipelago

Since the events of the previous post over a month has passed, in which we settled back into post-holiday real life. It was not exactly as it had been prior to the holiday, though. I have been fortunate enough to be offered relief teaching work at an independent adult college in the area (a feminist one!), as well as private tuition work. This has meant I’ve been somewhat busier, and a little bit of the unease about employment and dependence has faded. Meanwhile, study is ramping up as we head towards the final test before SAS (Svenska som andraspråk), which unfortunately for me is planned for the first week of June. Which is the week I come back from Australia.

Yes, I am going to Australia for a few weeks, yay!

I’m not sure how this blog will work, it being based on sharing experiences from new countries and adventures, but I’m sure there will at least be photos of blue skies, forests, beautiful sunsets and little old Perth. Awww, nostalgia.

ANZAC biscuits for the trip

ANZAC biscuits for the trip

During the last month and a bit we have also gone on a little road-trip, exploring the coast around Göteborg. A fellow expat had a friend from home visiting for a week and decided to book a car and plan a two day road-trip to the archipelago and to the south coast, which we were delighted to go along with.

It often seems to be the case that when you live somewhere, one of the last places you explore is the area just beyond the range of daily journeys, though you will regularly travel well past it. I don’t know why this is, but I’d welcome any theories!
In any case, we started our adventure with a breakfast of pancakes at our apartment, and then trooped down to the car to hit the road.
The first stop was the island of Öckerö, which is just off the coast of Göteborg, and which we reached by car-ferry. We had been there before on a windy and wet day, but as luck would have it the entire weekend of the road-trip was sunny with barely a hint of wind, better than we could have hoped.

Once on the island we parked and stretched our legs around the perimeter of the island, walking through boatyards, which included plastic-wrapped boats, and through quiet suburbs. Starting to feel a bit hungry we then headed over to the island of Höno, and into town to a cafe that was recommended by the organiser of the trip. The cafe is cunningly located at the back of a florist, and after ordering ‘the shopping lunch’ (what a brilliant idea!) we settled in the sheltered, cushioned section at the back and ate, drank and chatted. Once we were full and I had topped the pizza off with a home-made passion-fruit meringue cake, which was even better than it sounds, we headed out into the sun and down to the rocky beach.

A beach on Hönö

A beach on Hönö

I have yet to work out why, but coastal areas in Sweden always seem to be silent. It’s as though there’s a forcefield keeping the bustle of people and industry away from the quietly lapping water and sun warmed rocks. We spent a good hour alternatively basking on rocks, exploring the coves, taking in the views and paddling barefoot in the chilly water. We were joined by a few families, including one who seemed to think that massive rock piles posed no barrier for a pram. Feeling well basked we wandered back to the car and continued on our journey.

The land side of Marstrand

The land side of Marstrand

Back on the mainland we drove north through farmlands and villages and around to the last destination of the day, Marstrand. To get there we crossed bridges and roads over ever smaller islands until we got to the town of Marstrand, from where we could drive no further. We caught another ferry over to the island and started the climb up through the lovely old town to the fortress above. The cobbled streets, elegant old houses and quiet made it feel as though it was from a different century; perhaps in summer when tourism is booming is feels more contemporary, but on this late afternoon in March we almost had the town to ourselves.

Houses reflected

Houses reflected

Once at the fortress we swung around to the right and circled the walls till we found a bench overlooking the rocks, forests and sea below. Swedes, we decided, have an instinct about benches, so if there is ever a place with a view, there will either be a bench waiting or someone along very soon with planks and nails.

Carlstens Fästning

Carlstens Fästning

After a bit of exploring and taking photos, the four of us sat on the bench and stared out to sea. We probably sat there, in silence, for at least 15 minutes, watching the sun descend and the light change.

A village out to sea

A village out to sea

Then we headed back up to the fortress, along the cobbled streets and through echoing archways to a grassy embankment from where we could see the sun almost touching the horizon. As with toasters, as you watch the sun setting it doesn’t seem to be moving until you look away, though as we watched and did a countdown it slipped into the sea, leaving a pink and gold sky behind it.

The old town at dusk

The old town at dusk

In the gradual darkness we went back to the ferry, then to the car, and then back to town. In town we had dinner at our favourite burger restaurant and then, tired and full, we went home and slept, to be ready for the next day’s adventures.

A glimpse of old lives

I should start by saying that I feel very lucky that my partner knows me as well as he does. I know this because his present to me was a private tour around Rome.

The day of the tour didn’t start well, with rain threatening, but it being our last full day in Rome we couldn’t change the date so decided to take the risk. Thus we ended up running through the streets, avoiding (most of the) puddles and umbrella salesmen (who were legion) and arriving at the Baths of Caracalla only 5 minutes late. Our guide, Marisa, met us there, and after the introductions we got started on our exploration of everyday ancient Rome.

One of the things that had appealed to us about the tour guide was the option of a special tour entitled ‘Daily Life in Ancient Rome’. As my previous post about Ostia may have hinted, I am most fascinated by the traces of everyday life left by people going about their lives, from local bath houses to apartment buildings and bars. Yes, the basilicas would have been grand and imposing, but what about the little stalls in the shadows of the columns? The lawyers shilling for work from all comers, and the teachers trying to drum grammar into the heads of distracted children over the bustle of the crowds? If you look closely at the steps of the Basilica Julia in the Forum, you can see circles carved into the marble, the remnants of game boards made thousands of years ago. Perhaps someone had been bored, while waiting for an appointment, or while watching a speech from the rostrum? We’ll never know I suppose, but that’s why we write stories.

Paintings, perhaps from someone's dining room

Paintings, perhaps from someone’s dining room

The Baths of Caracalla are massive, and were apparently not even the largest complex in ancient Rome. The whole site would have covered 25 hectares, and the closest approximation I can imagine would be a massive luxury gym that was open for all members of the public, the sort of building I can’t really imagine existing now. The fact that anyone could go there for a low fee, and sometimes for free, was one of the things I liked about it, but it’s dimensions and the beauty of the remaining art and the construction are also amazing. Much of the roof has now collapsed, leaving arches and towering walls where domes and mosaic laden ceilings were once suspended over glittering mosaics and bathing pools brimming with the multitudes of Rome. As we walked through the halls and corridors, Marisa explained what it would have been like to visit, and about the engineering and labour that went on behind the scenes to keep the caldariums hot and the frigidariums chilly.

Baths of Caracalla

Baths of Caracalla

From the Baths we headed to the Caelian Hill, which I hadn’t even really noticed before. It overlooks the Circus Maximus, to the south of the Capitoline, and is dominated by churches. We went into one of the churches, under which lies part of an ancient neighbourhood. We entered a small domus, with paintings still intact, and proceeded to explore. Connecting rooms also featured paintings, figures and beasts, some of the figures censored by ancient monks. Then we were out on an ancient street, descending to another level, softly lit but for the dim corners and deep wells.

A garden feature

A garden feature

The houses and streets had been preserved as the foundations of the church, as with many other sites around the city. These particular ruins were of interest because of a theory about 2 skeletons that had been discovered there. They were found buried in what had been a garden, which was very strange for ancient Rome, where everyone was cremated or buried outside the city walls. It had been assumed by Christians that the bodies were those of two martyrs who were known to have been buried in a garden in Rome. Whether or not the skeletons really were John and Paul (though not that John and Paul), it was wonderful to be able to walk through ancient streets and ancient houses, only a few metres below the living city.

Part of an ancient street

Part of an ancient street

The final stop was the museum that accompanied the houses, and then we were out and walking together to the Colosseum, where we sadly farewelled Marisa and went off the have lunch.

I thoroughly recommend her tours, to anyone who is considering visiting Rome and it’s environs. She was able to answer all of our questions and give us endless reams of information and a sense of what it is like to live and breath Rome, both ancient and modern. If I ever visit again, and I reeeally hope I will, I’m definitely going to look her up again. Well, after following her recommendation of an early morning visit to the Pantheon.

Panorama of the Colisseum

Panorama of the Colisseum

After lunch we joined the queues for the Colosseum, eventually making our way in and then spending about an hour wandering around the huge ruins. It sometimes doesn’t feel like a ruin, with so much still intact and the scale still discernible, if diminished. Sadly the lower floors were closed due to flooding, and the upper floors were closed for an unspecified reason, but we were able to join the crowds for the full circumference, admiring the spectacle around us, and exhibits of the toothpicks, plum pits and knuckle bones that had been left behind by visitors thousands of years ago.

The new city through the old

The new city through the old

The last attraction was the Museum of the Imperial Forums, the highlight of which was yet more ancient streets, this time flanked by mostly intact rooms that once held shops, that tower over the street in multiple stories.
From the top stories we had a very good view over the Forum as dusk was approaching, and after a final stroll along the streets, imagining the area in the midst of ancient bustle, we went out onto the street.

A street from the Imperial Forums

A street from the Imperial Forums

Dinner that night was at the Tavern of the Imperial Forum, just around the corner from the museum, which not only featured an ancient Roman wall along one side of the room, but excellent food and wine. If there was only one thing I would take away from the tour with Marisa, it would be an ability to recognise ancient Roman brickwork. Perhaps a specialist skills, but I hope to put it to use.

Charioteer mosaic

Charioteer mosaic

The next day was the last one, spent packing and then whiling away the last of our time at the Palazzo Museum, which contained the most astounding mosaics and wall paintings that I have ever seen.

Mosaic of a girl

Mosaic of a girl

The triclineum of Livia was especially wonderful, featuring a riot of trees and shrubs, housing birds that seemed as though they would fly off at any moment. The room was lit in such a way that every hour it would cycle through the changes of light in a day, and I wish I could have experienced all of them.

A tree in Livia's triclinium

A tree in Livia’s triclinium

We also found remnants from the ships of Nemi, rudder clasps, railings and a face of Medusa in bronze, and some extremely fine sculptures. Next time I visit I hope to go to the museum again to give the items the time they deserve.

The beaten boxer

The beaten boxer

Then we went to the airport, said goodbye to the Italian sun and in a few hours stepped out into the wet chill of a Swedish afternoon, memories of warmth and sunlight on ancient stones still clear in our minds.

Goodbye to Rome

Goodbye to Rome