Eyes and stones of the past

Our second full day in Malta dawned full of promise and hoping for the best we decided to put our fate into the hands of the tourist buses. We had avoided them as being too touristy and expensive in comparison with public transport, what with budgeting and travelling locally and all that. As we had stood at the bus stop the previous night, being told that the final bus that could take us home wasn’t accepting anymore passengers, and after a few hours of discovering every pot hole from coast to coast, we felt we had reached a tipping point.
So off we trundled to Sliema, where we accosted one of the army of people trying to make bookings (she seemed surprised to be an accostee for once) and got tickets for one of the hop on hop off buses that endlessly circled the islands. After a little bit of being bussed about, we made it onto the doubledecker bus, taking our seats on the roofs and plugging in our headphones to soak in the surroundings the history in comfort.

Our first stop was Tarxien, a large open air Megalithic temple that is about 5000 years old. It lies in the middle of a little town, so we followed signs to a square, surrounded on one side by a cemetery and on the other by a high wall. In the shade of sparse trees a food van sold wilting fruit and vegetables, or would have had there been anyone to sell them to. The area was entirely empty of tourists or tourist traps, and a duck around the corner to the entrance revealed that the site was closed for the time being, while a protective cover was built. Which was, we agreed, a good idea. It would have been better to have been made aware of this fact by the lady at the tourism office, the bus driver who announced the stop or even the Tarxien website.

Our view of Tarxien

Our view of Tarxien

Somewhat miffed, we bought some groceries and ducked into the almost hidden door to the Hypogeum of Ħal-Saflieni in the hopes that someone may have canceled their bookings.
This ancient site is probably the most famous of the prehistoric temples in Malta, and only accepts a limited number of visitors per day to preserve it. As such you need to book well ahead, more than a month as I discovered when I attempted to do this. When we arrived there were no cancellations and the next available booking was on August 2nd. We left the office, almost lost among the other buildings whose construction had precipitated the Hypogeum’s finding, and the destruction of the temple above ground. In a later post I’ll go into this inability of the Maltese to build anything without discovering some remnant of their history, and the pride and irritation that at least one person feels about it.

For now at least, the heroes of this story are standing at a bus stop, feeling a little let down by fate and whatever gods oversee tourists. They won’t be downcast for too long though, as the bus arrived not overly late and they got to enjoy some time with the wind in their hair and the sun on their skin as they journeyed on towards another site of interest.

Marsaxlokk is an old fishing town and has been since the Phoenicians settled there in the 900sBCE, if not before. Though the restaurants along the waterfront were listed as must see/eat attractions, we decided to stay on the bus while the driver took a toilet break, admiring the neat terraced houses and colourful array of boats bobbing in the harbour. Many were painted in the style that seemed unique to Malta, lines of lateral red, blue and yellow along the length of the boat and small eyes or fish painted on the prow. The eyes are another tie to the Phoenicians, a sign to ward off the evil eye and protect against malign forces that has somehow managed to survive into the deeply Catholic culture that exists today on Malta.

A Maltese boat

A Maltese boat

As the bus moved off, we rounded the coast and soon came to our next stop and our second attempt at seeing some of the ancient history of the islands. As with the temples we had tried and failed to see, Ħaġar Qim and Mnajdra date from the 3000-4000s BCE are were built by people who left many traces of their lives but none to indicate where they went or why they suddenly disappeared from history. Unlike the other sites, these aren’t located in busy towns but instead on hills that end in cliffs overlooking the sea.

Before we could catch more than a glimpse of them, however, we were ushered into a small cinema and handed 3D glasses. A short film soon followed, with a warning to be aware that the experience was going to be more sensual, or at least sense oriented, than we were used to. As the history of the site unfolded before us, gusts of dusty, limestone heavy wind and a light drizzle of rain punctuated the turn of the centuries. Without words we saw the structures being built, used, abandoned and finally discovered and reconstructed. When the lights turned back on we went out and explored the small but very interesting and interactive museum, having a go at bashing rocks with other rocks and other educational activities. A plaque on a wall acknowledged the contributions that Norway had made to the funds to preserve the site, which seemed to us to be very generous, if a little baffling.
Out under the sky again we walked down the dusty path to the nearer of the two temples. As we walked through the scrub buzzing with insects and small birds, I wondered how much the land had changed since the temples had been constructed. The forests were gone and old roads faded, but our view over the sea and the flowers blooming on the edges of the cliffs must have been familiar to those ancient eyes who had watched the temples take shape.

A room in Hagar Qim

A room in Hagar Qim

Ħaġar Qim is large, even though the limestone it is made of has been weathered by time. The stones form ramps, chapels and altars, some carved with swirls or a pattern of dots, one block even weighing 57 tonnes. A menhir stands at the back, 5 metres tall and around the base are scattered stones that I suppose the archaeologists couldn’t find a place for. In one room a hole in the wall lets in a circle of light, and at certain times of the year this circle lights particular stones, marking the equinoxes for reasons that are lost to us.

Following the seasons

Following the seasons

Mnajdra was a little smaller, located a hundred or so metres the the north of its neighbour, and similarly impressive. Among the immense pillars and towering walls is a perfectly balanced altar framed by pillars, the soft gold of the limestone giving it a luminous quality.

Ancient altars

Ancient altars

Though neither temple is as large as Tarxien, nor as famous as the Hypogeum, they have a sense of permanence and endurance that’s only strengthened by the sparse slopes and steep cliffs where they perch. And long may they perch there.

Mnajdra, protected from the sky

Mnajdra, protected from the sky

Forts, festivals and sunsets over the sea

The capital city of Valletta on the island of Malta was at one time the headquarters of the Knights of St John, and had in fact been built by them. Or they ordered it built in any case. The Knights were one of the more adventurous orders, skipping from country to country one step ahead of the Ottomans, laying siege here, being besieged there and amassing a lot of wealth along the way. When they eventually washed up on the scant shores of Malta, I imagine there may have been some sights of ‘here we go again’ from the inhabitants, or whatever the local equivalent is on an island that almost seems to be the hot potato of the Mediterranean.
These latest visitors would only be around for about 250 years, but during that time they left their mark very clearly all over the islands. 14 towers circle the islands, castles and fortresses surmount most large hills, and at the capital you can’t go 5 metres without seeing a trace of them. Especially if you approach by water.

Fort St Elmo is perched on the seaward facing point of the penninsula. As you approach from the north on a bus, winding around the points of St Julian and Sliema, you can catch glimpses of the massive walls and towers, the golden limestone glowing in the morning light. From the walls themselves you can get an amazing view over the harbour and surrounding metropolis, as well as imagine what it must have been like for the soldiers watching the sea for invading fleets. In 1565 there would have been blood and fighting where we stood enjoying the sea breeze, as the fortress fell during the Great Siege. A little distance away from the walls, we found the small, quiet chapel of St Anne which had apparently been the site of the last stand of the Knights, and where a number of priests were killed. I read this before I went in, so I couldn’t help shivering a little as I looked around, and not just from the chill of the darkened room.

Chapel of St Anne

Chapel of St Anne

In addition to chapels, walls, bastions (whatever they are) and gates with eyes, the Fort of St Elmo contains a war museum detailing the military history of Malta.

An eye guarding the gates

An eye guarding the gates

Not having a huge amount of interest in the subject, at least when it doesn’t concern really ancient military history, I left my fella to it and wandered out of the fortress and into the streets of Valletta. The main streets leading from the city gates to the fortress were busy with tourists, so I nipped down a few side streets, passing locals going about their business. There was an old man on a mobile talking animatedly, a woman hanging up washing on her balcony and a number of stray cats snoozing in the shade of parked cars. For some reason most of the cats on Malta are ginger. My theory is that once, long ago, a ginger cat was brought to the island and through a campaign of feline bullying took over the capital city and ensured that its descendants continued its gingery legacy. Most likely it came from Sicily, where keeping it in the family is apparently de rigueur.

My feet eventually led me to the Museum of Archaeology, where I spent a happy few hours exploring the long history of the islands. Among the things that most struck me were the sculptures from the Neolithic period. The most common were large women, sitting with legs decorously folded to the side and one arm folded. There were no heads on the bodies, but rather a hole where archaeologists assume a series of interchangeable heads could have been inserted. Though some were clumsily made, there were many that had been very finely carved, the folds in their dresses precisely made and their hands and feet delicate, giving a sense of dignity and poise even after all these years.

Stone ladies

Stone ladies

Elsewhere in the museum was a room dedicated to the Phoenicians, who had dominated the islands before the Romans took over in the 200sBCE. I’ve never had a chance to see Phoenician artifacts before, overwhelmed as they were and are by their noisy competitors, so a tiny curse scroll in their script and a sarcophagus who looked as though she was holding her breath were pleasant surprises.

Phoenician sarcophagus

Phoenician sarcophagus

History ancient and military achieved, we met up and made our way to the Upper Barakka Gardens, swapping notes on the history of the islands. From the balconies and shady tables of the gardens we had an amazing view out over the harbour and city, the industry of the docks chugging away behind tourist boats, and ancient fortresses blending with busy neighbourhoods.

Valletta from the gardens

Valletta from the gardens

Before we could let ourselves settle too deeply into our chairs, however, there was an event that night that I very much wanted to attend. The L-Imnarja is an ancient agricultural festival held in honour of St Paul and St Peter (or at least since Catholicism came to Malta), which takes place in Buskett Garden. This is a grove not far from Mdina in the centre of the island and as such I had assumed from the safety of my computer in Sweden that it would be no problem to get there and join in the market stalls and watch the donkey and horse races before the fireworks were finally set off. Once in Malta the reality of traveling the 12.5kms from Valletta to Buskett settled in, and so did we on our bus seats as we sadly passed the stop for the festival, realising that if we did get off there would be no reliable way to get back home.
Instead we continued on the bus to Dingli cliffs, which is less disappointing now that I know that we should have gone around the corner to see the real ones. The sunset over the scrubby flowers and plants and the sea beyond was a lovely sight though, and worth the long bus ride and teenagers loudly singing the hits of the 80s.

Sunset over Dingli

Sunset over Dingli

Tired and hungry, we went back to town and dined on local pastries and a slushie overlooking the Sliema harbour, were refused admittance to the last bus home as it was too full and caught a taxi back to the apartment, trying not to doze off as we rocked up the roads and trudged across the construction site in the bright, Mediterranean moonlight.

First taste of Malta

The landscape of Malta is similar to Spain from the air; yellow and brown, with golden-cream coloured towns and patches of dark green that looked shrubby even from the air. As we descended the buildings became a mix of balconied Italian houses with Qatar-esque arches in the same shade of warm gold limestone. Cacti and eucalyptus trees filled in gaps, making the mix of familiar and foreign even stronger. As we bussed to the apartment where we would be staying, we caught glimpses of a calm blue sea and heavily populated bays awash with yachts. After missing our stop we caught another bus back and then found ourselves navigating around a dusty construction site to the apartment, where our hosts were cheerfully waving in welcome. After that we were very enthused about relaxing and washing off the muck of air travel and construction site, and so devoted some time to that.

Malta from above

Malta from above

Have you noticed that you never feel clean after a journey on a plane? Conspiracy nonsense aside, there’s something strange about passing through vast and then cramped sterile areas and feeling as though you’re carrying an inch of gunk on your skin. Rarely is a shower more welcome, and so it was for me on that first evening.

Outside the apartment, across the construction site, lay a very shallow bay, walled and bisected into large square pools. These, we learnt later, were 16th century salt pans which have fallen into disuse, though a small chapel still stands in the centre, blessing the quiet, salty water.
As there was no way over the salt pans we went around, again venturing into a construction site, which wasn’t very secure. Not enough to keep out two cautious tourists and various locals at least. I would like to point out that if there had been footpaths we would have happily used them, but there weren’t, so we didn’t. We passed through a ‘no trespassing’ into a park, past an incongruous memorial to JFK and bit by bit got closer to the living part of the area.
Terraced roads overlooked the bay, which deepened and filled with boats, and as we strode along families enjoyed their dinner in the sun, or cleaned out the motors of boats. We soon enjoyed our own dinner, pizza and local wine in a boathouse restaurant as the sun set on the other side of the island.

The further around the peninsula of Qawra that we went, the thicker the crowds of tourists became. Many were middle aged and Italian, strolling along with grandkids or in groups enjoying their holidays. It would be later before we started to see more of the younger crowds, and began to hear more snippets of English. At the tip of the penninsula, below street level and facing the sea, is Cafe Del Mar. We never got around to visiting, but even at 8pm it seemed to me to embody the sort of place that people imagine when thinking of Mediterranean islands in summer. A perfectly clear and calm pool, umbrellas and white deck lounges, with bars scattered among them prepping for the night ahead, and electronic music pumping away.

Cafe Del Mar in the evening

Cafe Del Mar in the evening

The hours passed and we walked further, stopping to listen to a charity gig opposing human-trafficking and stare at the horse drawn carriages trotting past. We ended up in St Paul’s Bay with a bottle of red and a sense of really being on holiday in a place that seemed stranger and more surprising with each passing moment.

The capital of Malta is Valletta, formerly the base for the Knights of St John, and was where we headed for our first full day. A bus took us through labyrinthine streets and stone walled garden plots and deposited us at the gates of the city. And they were certainly city gates, tall and imposing and flanked by deep moats. Inside my first impression was of modernity, the sharp edged building to the right and the touristy mall to the left not fitting with the image of ancient fortress. As we soon discovered, this was because the original buildings that had stood there had been destroyed during WWII. In fact a majority of the buildings on the islands had been bombed to dust by the German airforce, leaving the way open for new styles and architecture. As well as a lot of rubble, which seems to have been converted into the precarious stone walls that divide the islands. Despite this, most of the houses were built in what I think of as the old, Italian style, with tall narrow town-houses fronted by elaborate balconies.

Matching balconies

Matching balconies

Much of Valletta was made of these, the straight and hilly streets shadowed by brightly painted or scuffed, wooden or metal balconies in many styles. It being Sunday many shops were closed, but we managed to find the tourist office, which was mysteriously empty. When there were so many tourists around, why were none of them in here booking tours and asking the same questions over and over? The answer would become clear to us in time, but at this point we just grabbed some pamphlets, were vaguely helped by the receptionist when she glanced up from her phone, and then headed back out into the sunlight.

Inside St John's Co-Cathedral

Inside St John’s Co-Cathedral

Our first attraction in this ancient city was almost on a whim, as we passed craft stalls and then turned to peer into St John’s Co-Cathedral. Why not go in, we thought. As I was wearing shorts (actual shortish shorts, for the first time in over a year. Truly summer had come!) I had to wrap a cloth around my legs, which turned out to be handy for clipping things on as we explored. As the tourist book said, it was elaborate, the walls decorated richly in gold and silver and bright colours, the floor covered with the tombstones of knights done in multi-coloured marble, each one individual.

Tombstones of long-dead knights

Tombstones of long-dead knights

I admired the chapels, each unique and elaborate, and soaked in the two paintings by Caravaggio that hang in the Cathedral. On one wall is a painting of an aged St Jerome writing in a dark room, and facing it across a large room is The Beheading of St John the Baptist. This second one of the most arresting, with the play of colour and drama and use of chiaroscuro clear enough even for untrained me to appreciate.

Out in the sunlight we sought and found a bar which offered tapas and the local beer for €6, and settled in. It is one of the first types of beer that I have ever liked, and so I was in no rush to move on with our day, snacking on local delicacies and watching the tourists and locals pass us by.

Tapas and beer

Tapas and beer

Old streets, new streets and art in Aarhus

The day dawned bright and directly into my face as we woke up for our day of exploring Aarhus. Out the window I could hear gulls cawing and pigeons cooing, the jazzy pigeon having returned, and miraculously the sky was mostly clear of clouds.

In the kitchen we made cheese toast and sipped tea and coffee while I planned the agenda for the day. A quick search revealed that, inexplicably, the two museums I was most interested in were closed on Saturdays. On Saturdays (There was another museum that I’ll have to return for, the Museum on Women’s History, which boasts this charming billboard).

A good thing about museums

A good thing about museums

In addition, the managers of the tourism office, in their infinite wisdom, had decided that the best time for the tourist office to be closed was weekends. The only logical conclusion I can draw from all of this is that the people of Aarhus are just not that interested in other people visiting their town.

Despite these setbacks, we hit the streets soon after for some history, and soon found it just down the street. Having found it, we followed the arrows located at random in the neighbouring Botanical Gardens until we found the entrance, which was exactly half-way around the enclosure.
You thought I was kidding about the anti-tourism thing, didn’t you?
Once we were inside, however, I felt willing to forgive Aarhus. Den Gamle By (The Old Town) is an open air museum, a familiar sight in Scandinavia. Someone in the past decided to gather houses from as early as the 1400s and as late as the 1970s, plonk them into the centre of Aarhus and fill them with antiques, re-enactors and exhibits. You wander the streets, nibbling traditional cakes, bumping into the pastor’s wife as she bustles around her small house, barely fitting through the doorways in her hooped skirt.

Old fashioned bakery

Old fashioned bakery

There were stilts that we tried out and raced on, horse drawn carriages that we took for a ride around the Botanical Gardens and geese that bullied anyone who crossed their paths. We explored for a few hours, looking into shops, watching people cooking in old fashioned kitchens, remarking on how many shards must have gathered on the apprentice glass-maker’s bed under the work bench.

Friendly carriage horses

Friendly carriage horses

We even found people making and selling beer in a cellar, getting around the liquor licensing laws by selling only the glasses that they promised would be filled up again the next time we visited. There was even a beer that I liked.
Soon after, before the glow of my astonishment and teensy bit of tipsiness had faded, we headed back out into the 21st century and to lunch.

After lunch (very tasty burgers) we went to the second most highly rated attraction in Aarhus; ARoS. From the outside it was a brick block with a circular glass rainbow on the roof, and smoke billowing out of a pipe on it’s side. Inside white staircases twisted up on either side of a large open space, designed to mirror Dante’s Inferno.

Inside ARoS

Inside ARoS

I’m not usually interested in modern art, because I don’t often understand it, but I was completely swept away by the contents of ARoS. I swung in a clear ball of a chair, deciphered writing on lighbulbs, walked under a corridor of spinning fans, through a room of swinging mirrors and glass that threw odd silhouettes on the thin cloth walls and a room showing four perspectives of a person diving into a pool, the water shooting up slowly in reverse on one and bubbles settling underwater on another.

Room of spinning mirrors

Room of spinning mirrors

Then we found the source of the smoke. Through glass doors was a room filled with white, smoke-machine smoke and lit in shifting pastels. We went in holding hands, even then were only able to see the shadows of each other through the dense clouds. Following the walls and voices we made our way back out and very nearly went back in again. It was disorienting and exciting, and summed up in a sense all of the experiences of art that I had at ARoS.

Having climbed up the staircases, we went onto the roof and circled the glass rainbow. As we walked, the panels gradually changed shades, though you could only tell the difference once you looked back. Aarhus went from blue to orangey-pink via green and yellow, it’s moods seeming to change along the way.

Aarhus from the rainbow

Aarhus from the rainbow

After a full circuit we descended to the basement where a corridor lead past rooms with projections of faceless men with groping hands, absurdist lounge-rooms, endless mirrored balconies and giant eggs with crying faces. I think I could have stood in the mirror room for longer than I did, staring at an eternity of myself, my face and the back of my head, but there was one more exhibit we had to see.

Up one floor from the basement sat the Boy, staring out at the room from over his arm. He is 4.5 metres tall and extremely realistic, from his wrinkled fiberglass toes to his thick mop of brown hair. Despite being so huge, the scuffed boyish elbows and defensive posture make him seem vulnerable, and I wonder what sort of impression we might have gotten had he been displayed in a smaller room, with his head nearly touching the ceiling.

Boy

Boy

There was another figure that seems to fool you with it’s realism in the museum, that of a living statue. Fooled by her soft looking skin, apparent skill and sensible sneakers under her dress, I put a couple of Danish crowns into her hat, only seeing as we were leaving the small plaque with the name of the statue and artist.

Not-so-living statue

Not-so-living statue

Having soaked our fill of art and history, we went to the Latin Quarter, where a festival was underway. Our host had told us that a street festival for multi-culturalism was going to be held on Saturday night, so we went to have a look and were soon lost in a crowd of boozy, partying Danes and other foreigners, following or swimming against the tide of party-goers. As Australia doesn’t have laws allowing drinking on the streets, this kind of thing was completely strange to me, but the relaxed, happy atmosphere went some way to convincing me that maybe drinking on the streets could work, if you can adopt the laidback Scandinavian attitude.
With the parentals in tow, and not really wanting to get stuck with giant plastic glasses of beer in the rain, we escaped down a side street and found a tiny wine bar. One of the two barmen gave us tastings and recommendations, and we settled in, sipping our glasses and warming up as the rain and wind continued outside. Then, once again hitting the streets, we went in search of food and had a very nice meal at a steakhouse. The red wine sauce was absolutely wonderful and not a trace of it remained on my fella’s plate by the end of the meal.

Glimpse of sun in Aarhus

Glimpse of sun in Aarhus

Fed, watered and footsore, we then walked back up the hill to the apartment, to sleep and prepare for the return to Sweden. The next day we breakfasted and packed, bussed to the station, boarded the train, changed trains, passed the fields of canola, arrived in Fredrikshavn, boarded my ship and bade goodbye to Denmark, for now.

Across the sea and fields to Aarhus

With all the planning and considering of holidays far away, it’s sometimes easy to forget that an entire other country lies just off the coast. From living in Perth where a long stare out to see only brought distant imaginings of Africa, this is quite something. You can of course take a train south and then west for the capital, but there are other options. For example, from the harbour in Gothenburg you can take a ferry across the Kattegat to the north coast of Denmark, and be there in just under 3 hours. When my fella’s parents visited us a couple of weeks ago, we decided it was a good opportunity to try the cruise and explore beyond Sweden’s borders, and see something new for all of us.

So two weeks ago we lined up for and then boarded a cruise ship that dwarfed the harbour, a ship that I have long since claimed as my own anyway. The Stena (insert name that is one letter from my own) was built for transporting hundreds of people, plus cars and trucks, and so is a sturdy old thing. Apart from the cinema there were no frills on this cruise, and it was a rush to find a place to sit and wait out the voyage. We were unseasoned travellers (no trolley to heft cartons of beer and wine, the shame of it) and missed a table in the sun or comfortable cabins, but found a nice spot on the deck. There we settled, watching the harbour passing by and reveling in the breezy, sunny morning light that still seems rare to me. We saw seals, a medieval fortress and ongoing industry as we passed, and as we got comfortable I noticed that our shipmates were making themselves comfortable in a different way.

A fortress in the harbour

A fortress in the harbour

While our little group was happy with coffee and water, the Swedes and Danes who sat around us got started on the beer and gamaldansk, getting the the cruise well underway. As with the previous cruise I have posted about, a lot of thought is spent on getting as much out of the duty-free shop as possible, some people I think even waiting at the other end just to board again for the return trip, stack of beers and boxes of wine well in hand. For those who don’t know, by the way, alcohol is pretty expensive in Sweden, and I have even heard of people driving down to Germany to stock up for a party.
For those on the ship who were less interested in raiding the duty-free shop, there was a kid’s play room, a cafe and a bar, plus the cinema and a whole lot of pokies shoved into every available space. People who hadn’t found a table of chairs perched on stools or on the floor between the machines, dinging along on the machines or reading books. There were lounges, for overnight travel I’d guess, and special areas for truckies which the rest of us were barred from, so who knows what sort of entertainments they got. In time, after we’d all had a go at exploring the ship, the coast of Denmark came into view and we gathered with everyone else near the doors to been unloaded onto Fredrikshamn.

Canola in the wheatbelt

Canola in the wheatbelt

The view from the trains as we sped through Denmark was of fields lit by sunlight and bright yellow canola. I’d seen canola fields during a long drive through the wheatbelt of WA years ago, and been struck by the almost fluorescent glow of the flowers, as well as the strong smell. The train windows protected us from that second effect, but the colour was still surprising. These and other crops gave the impression of the north of Denmark as a breadbasket, wide flat fields keeping the rest of the country fed so it could concentrate on more esoteric things, like attaining the highest standard of living in the world.
Amid the fields were little towns, the church spires tall among the steep-roofed houses, and occasionally larger towns with the typical grey boxes of apartment buildings so familiar to Europe.

Our first impression of Aarhus was of the latter sort of town, but as we headed up through the town to find our apartment, signs of a different city appeared. At the end of a street of grocers, pizza shops and balconied apartment buildings was a house with wooden Tudor triangles, or a bohemian avenue of artsy clothes shops and cafes. We passed the edge of the Latin Quarter, which I’m guessing takes it’s name from the identically named quarter in Paris, so named because of the Latin speaking students that have studied, tottered and argued there for centuries. I looked forward to exploring it so more soon, but for the time being I most wanted to drop off my luggage and freshen up before we got our exploring shoes on.
The apartment we had rented was on the top floor, with views to the harbour and beyond, a cathedral tower again poking above the roofs clustered around it. My fella and I had chosen the attic room, with tall windows that opened directly above the bed, so we could sit under the blanket and stare out over the roof tops to the sea, and leave the windows open an inch for a cool breeze during the night. Our closest neighbours were the pigeons and seagulls that stared at us as we opened the windows to peer out, as if we were intruding on their personal space. Their voices were the only sounds to reach us, one jazzy pigeon in particular entertaining us with a unique tune in the evenings and mornings.

A view over Aarhus

A view over Aarhus

That first night we headed out to the centre of town to find something to eat, ending up on the riverside promenade where both tourists and local were gathering. The river seemed to me more of a canal, with steep sides and slowly flowing water, like those I’ve seen in every European town. Now that I think about it, the only river I know of whose banks are mostly unmolested by concrete is the Swan River, that flows through my home town in Australia. I suppose we haven’t had hundreds of years to contain it yet, and I hope it can stay that way.
Though we passed the simply named ‘The Australian Pub’, we ended up at a Danish/Carnivale themed restaurant and settled down to toast and enjoy our first dinner in Aarhus.

When we had eaten enough and were satisfied with the town, we headed slowly back up the hill to our apartment to rest in preparation for a day of exploring student-centred, artsy, historical and quirky Aarhus.

Escape to the Baltic

When we were invited to join an overnight cruise I was skeptical. It was billed as a party ship, and we would be joining a group of Swedes as yet unknown to me who planned to get smashed. None of this particularly appealed to me. Nevertheless in the spirit of adventure we decided to go along; if nothing else, I thought, it would make an interesting blog post.
In many ways it was as I had expected. As the weekend crept closer I pictured drunk Swedes vomiting in swaying ship corridors, a tiny cabin a metre wide and windowless, people pinging between the ship’s only two bars and a rain drenched deck. One of these at least was partly true.

Swedish people, if I may generalise, like to be organised and prepared. Which is why those waiting to board the ship availed themselves of every opportunity to get sloshed. The corridors and halls leading to the as yet closed doors to the ship were lined with 2 bars and a restaurant, all doing a roaring trade. Beer, precarious glasses of wine and cruisers bobbed about and were knocked back or knocked over as the queue eventually began to move forward. Some people pulled empty trolleys along with their luggage, ready for the slabs of beer from duty free. If only they had known that you can buy pre-packed trolleys in the shop. A hen’s night group in matching t-shirts bustled about bottles in hand, already warmed up. We followed the crowd, in the wake of the Swedish friend of a friend who had invited us along.

‘Have you been on the cruise before?’

‘Yes, a few years ago. The other guys go every year, pretty much everyone in my home town know each other and so they all go together.’

‘What can you do on the boat? Other than drink I mean?’

‘Well,’ she thought, ‘there’s a shop and spas. And lots of different bars.’

Somewhat comforted that there were more than 2 places to spend our time, I continued to edge slowly forward, through security and finally onto the ship. My first impression was Titanic, only smaller, and my second was a sigh as I read that our rooms wouldn’t be open for at least an hour. We were all confined to the lower deck for the time being, and as we made our way around, one bar making way for another, and then a dance floor and a corridor of pokies, an inkling of the cunning plan concocted by the ship’s owners began to form in my mind.

A tipple on the topdeck

A tipple on the topdeck

By the time the rooms were open and we’d located ours, Stockholm was passing us by, and from the round window of our room I could see the roller-coasters and rides of Gröna Lund chugging along merrily. Our roommates seemed nice, and once they’d gone on their way and we’d gotten changed for the evening (con sneakers to black heels, pony-tail brushed out) we hit the decks. Along with our fellow Australian friend, we wandered about and eventually settled at the bar on the top deck, where we had a lovely view of the Stockholm archipelago slowly sliding past us. After a few more glasses we followed our whims, having dinner at one of the two restaurants after night had fallen outside (it never fell inside) and missing the opening hours for the duty free shop.

The archipelago at dusk

The archipelago at dusk

As time went on it seemed as though we were slipping behind everyone else on the ship drinks-wise, as a visit to the sundeck including a surprisingly good duet of Bohemian Rhapsody and stumblingly cheerful Swedes demonstrated. Back at the rooms we found where the real parties were taking place. The plan on these ships is to raid the duty free shops, get tanked in your rooms (where alcohol is technically not allowed) and then head out for the clubs. One of the most memorable moments on the ship was walking past an open door and glancing in to see about 10 young Swedish men perched on bunks and the floor, peering back at me like hens nesting in a coop.
We ended up on bunks between someone who overdid ‘Hellooooo!’ just a little, a Brian Viglione lookalike and a Canadian expat. Once our British roommate joined us we switched to English and made progress on a slab of sweet vodkaish things. Then it was time for karaoke, but by the time we had rounded everyone up from the party that was rolling from room to room, the sun deck was a night club and dancing was underway.

Onboard nightclub

Onboard nightclub

We passed the hours, watching, dancing, arguing about whether the flappy things above the ship were bats or birds, getting out of the way of medics helping a guy who had lost the fight with gravity and drink. Sometime later it was 5 in the morning and we were back in the cabin, almost-Brian passed out and Helloooo-man making no sense and falling asleep just before we got the message about an impatient girl who was waiting for him. Then, before the sun could start to peak too far over the horizon, we padded as quietly as possible into our own cabin and went to bed, not knowing that we were nearly in Finland.

The Baltic in the morning

The Baltic in the morning

The next morning, 3 hours later, I was awakened by a foghorn and despite struggles and the comfy bed I didn’t manage to get back to sleep. By the time I was up and dressed, the chance to visit Åland had passed. An island that is owned by Finland, where the official language is Swedish and they use the Euro, Åland would be an interesting place to visit, but not this time.
We missed breakfast and instead visited the shop, getting some cheap bottles and snacks, and then having a quick breakfast of chips and pastry on the top deck bar. The sun was out and the Stockholm archipelago was moving past us again under a blue sky. For the rest of the cruise we had lunch, sat outside in the windy sunlight, explored the decks and played air hockey (2-1).

Back in the archipelago

Back in the archipelago

By the time the boat was pulling back into harbour we were packed and watching gulls and terns dive for fish from the lower deck. The view of Gamla Stan and Djurgården over the water was lovely, and made me almost want to be part of the bustling big-brother city to my home town.
We disembarked, said goodbye to our shipmates, and then headed through town for the train home.

Gamla Stan across the sea

Gamla Stan across the sea

As I think about it, many things about the cruise seem to be a contradiction. The cabins are very cheap, but there is no opportunity to save money on the ship. You’re basically trapped with hundreds of other people who want to escape for the weekend, and the only escape is the seemingly endless supply of alcohol. All ages boarded the ship and no doubt all sorts of mischief was gotten up to, but by the next morning we all stepped off looking relatively chipper and friendly, merging back into our everyday selves. What happens on the cruise stays on the cruise, between the vague shore and international waters, and new friends you’ll never meet again.

Colours and tastes of Andalucia

Years ago I was sitting in a jazzbar with a friend, enjoying a live band and chatting away as we finished our meal. On the spur of the moment I ordered a glass of port to round off the evening. The taste was a mix of sultanas and a hint of chocolate and extremely smooth. As I exclaimed over the flavour and urged my friend to taste it, I noted the name on my phone and decided that I had to have a bottle of my own. So began a quest that lasted years. That phone died and was replaced, but the name stuck in my mind. Bar staff were questioned, bottleshops explored, bottleshop staff asked, friends of friends who knew someone put out a word and time passed. It seemed as if it was unattainable. Then one day in a bottleshop across the road from my home at the time, there it was. Despite the gasp-worthy price tag I pulled it off the shelf and took it home. It was slowly savoured, after a nice meal or over a good book.

Then came the time when we were to move overseas and we threw a party, leaving our accumulated bottle selection on the bar. My port was nestled at the back, out of sight, but as the night and drinking wore on it was uncovered and someone assumed it was wine and, well, let’s not dwell on that bit.
Having moved to a new country my search continued, checking the back shelves in the government owned monopoly bottleshops and the menus in bars. It began a habit more than anything else and not a sight was seen.

Which brings us to an early afternoon in Ronda, a couple of hours north-west of Málaga in Spain. Lunch was finished and we had begun our slow wander back to the bus station. We stopped in a tourist shop and found a lovely bowl, decorated with bright red hues and dark grapes that now sits as a contrast to the whites and creams of our Swedish apartment. My partner also wanted a souvenir of the bottle variety, so we investigated a little shop selling wines, cheeses and delicacies. As I glanced around, admiring the local reds, I saw it. A bottle of Alvear Pedro Ximinex Dulce Viejo 1927.

My precious

My precious

It’s now up on the shelf nestled between champagnes, wines and port from all around the world. It seems obvious now that I’d find it in Spain – perhaps if I’d thought of that I’d have visited sooner.

Still aglow from my discovery we crossed the bridge to the new town, dodging tourists, cars, cyclists and horse drawn carriages. We had enough time to sit and bask on the pagoda overlooking the valley and canyon as the guitarist played Spanish melodies behind us. Finally we left, glancing one last time at the view, as he struck up Recuerdos de la Alhambra. It had been the first thing I hear when we reached the platform, so it was fitting that it would play for us as we left for the bus, a sort of goodbye from the amazing views, sun and flowers of Ronda.

Goodbye Ronda

Goodbye Ronda

Back in Málaga we rested for a while at the apartment and planned our final night. After a few sips of wine, we headed out for dinner and finally settled on a place specialising in paella. We continued the night on the terrace of the apartment, finishing off the last of the wine as we looked out over the city.

The amphitheatre and fortress at night

The amphitheatre and fortress at night

The next morning we packed, tidied and cleaned, leaving the apartment in as close to the condition we’d found it in as possible. Then we said goodbye to the lovely little place and wandered town with our suitcases, using up our final hours with slowly perusing shops and windows, and seeing the amphitheatre and fortress for the last time. Down at the harbour we found a seat in the sun and finished off the fruit, chatting, napping and making notes for this blog.
Then the time came for the bus, and we said goodbye to the gardens, horses, sunlight, bustle and citrus-scented streets of Málaga.

Colours of Spain

Colours of Spain

I hope we can return someday, to snack on fresh fish at El Palo, gaze out over the Mediterranean from Gibralfaro and finish off a bottle of local Rioja over a table full of tapas.

Sunshine in Málaga

A few months ago, staring out of the window at the dark skies and considering the possibility of the sun ever returning to us, my partner and I decided that we had to get away. Just for a few days, long enough to soak in the sun a little and get a taste of Spring. Last year we visited Rome, as a combined birthday present and escape to the sun, and this year for the same reasons we returned to the Mediterranean, and a country that neither of us had never visited.

It was my partner who decided on Málaga, a place that I’d never really thought that much about, and which conjured up images of dusty industrial parks and scrubby bush land (for those not familiar with the exciting industrial suburbs of Western Australia, consider yourself lucky). I have always had an interest in Spain, and so happily agreed.

We left on Friday night, amid a crowd of grey-haired explorers who seemed to be regulars. The man in the seat next to me on the plane over there had been 12 times already, and owned a house in a town just outside of Málaga. Once he realised that I was willing to listen (or at least not willing to tell him to stop talking) he proceeded to describe the surrounding areas, his house, his ‘lady’, good hiking areas, how much it cost to hire a car, the best places to eat and how long it took to get to Granada. He then showed me photos, mostly himself in front of dramatic landscapes and a pile of maps, pointing out nice villages and landmarks. We eventually landed and he disappeared with a bashful smile, as our fellow passengers did their usual headlong bag-grab-and-dash to the doors. On the tarmac the air was vaguely smokey, and thick with scents we didn’t recognise, a change from the clear air of Sweden. As we were the last arrival for the night it was easy to grab a cab and rumble off to the apartment where we would be staying.
As with our trip to Malmö, we were using Airbnb and again it worked like a charm. Our host met us at the door, showed us around and then left us to unwind. A quick trip up to the terrace revealed a breathtaking view of the city, from the dry river behind us to the walls of Gibralfaro on the hill, lit up in the crisp darkness. Having whet our appetite with the view, we then slept.

Morning over Málaga

Morning over Málaga

The next morning we began with a leisurely search for breakfast through sunny morning streets (just a quick warning; the word sunny may pop up a few times in this post. My excuse is winter and the fact that right now, behind me, sun is shining through the windows. It’s a northern Europe thing). Many places were closed, and when we found a tapas restaurant that we liked the look of with glasses of wine for £1 we popped in for a snack. Unfortunately the lady at the bar seemed unimpressed with our lack of Spanish and so, in a round about way, ignored us so we in turn, in a more direct way, took our custom elsewhere. A glass of fresh orange juice, an expresso and thick bread with cheese later we were over our snubbing and raring to explore the sights.

Málaga cathedral

Málaga cathedral

The first stop was the Roman amphitheatre which sits in the shade of Alcazaba. Just in front of that, visible through a triangle of glass, were the remains of stone basins used to make garum, the famous Roman condiment of rotten fish. I wonder if there was ever a whiff of it during a performance?

The amphitheatre, still in business

The amphitheatre, still in business

We sat on the steps for a little while, contemplating this and basking, and then climbed up into the citadel. The path twisted and turned through gates and arches, narrowing into dark passages and then opening into paths lined with orange trees. As we ascended we had views out over the city and the sea and could hear the loud strains of a Christian rock band playing by the harbour. Near the top we reached a garden overlooking the sea, with channels of water running to a bubbling fountain surrounded by shrubbery and climbing roses on pillars.

A fountain

A fountain

The gardens continued for the next few twisting levels, with pots of rosemary, fountains, channels, oranges and bowers heavy with years of growth. At the top we found the palace, a small maze of cool rooms around two open-air courtyards, one lined with orange trees and the other circling a pool. The crowds limited the sorts of photos that would have summed up the peaceful atmosphere it was trying to project, but it was still lovely and graceful and just the sort of place I would like to have if I had a summer palace in the Mediterranean.

Oranges in Spring

Oranges in Spring

After our leisurely stroll about the palace and citadel, were headed for the heights of Gibralfaro. It was reached via a winding, steep path up the hill, past eucalyptus trees and other tourists panting and taking off their winter layers. From a vantage point we had a view of the bull fighting ring, which filled me with a mix of distaste and historically relate interest, resembling as it did the ancient Roman equivalents. The sandy arenas and animal battles of the Empire haven’t quite disappeared yet.

Bull ring

Bull ring

By the time we reached the top we were feeling a little bit puffed and thirsty, so after a look around the walls and over them at the surrounding city and more distant hills, we found a place to rest and refresh ourselves. It was a small cafe, which we suspected of touristy expense and tastelessness, but which turned out to be the perfect place for a midafternoon break. We took wine and tapas, a bit of juice and an icecream and finally olives and more wine, while sitting in the sun and gazing out over the sea. The taste of herbs, warmth of the sun and sharpness of the wine blurred into a sort of bliss as we sat and did nothing much, and felt rather as though we had slipped into some sort of paradise.

View of the harbour

View of the harbour

And here is where I will leave this part of our Spanish journey, sitting in the sun and feeling the relaxation of a holiday seeping into our bones.

World clocks and the future

It was a chilly and blustery morning when my mum and I set out from our hotel, notebooks and minds prepared to be filled with jottings and ideas. We arrived early and as other guests trickled in after us, we had a go at table-soccer. She won. A bit of tentative mingling and checking the tea supplies followed, and then the suddenly growing crowd filled the main hall, to stare expectantly at the stage. A man strode up and with a big smile welcomed us all to the 2015 Conference On Sustanability, and so began three days of presentations, workshops, networking, a constant barrage of new ideas and the drinking of a lot of tea.

For the first day I juggled presentations with lesson planning, writing last week’s blog-post and marking. It seemed that almost everyone else was grabbing time to sit and write or type, though as I gradually realised, much of it was last minute changes for their own presentations. It seemed I was one of the very few who was there without a presentation looming over their heads, or even a Dr. next to their name.
One memorable presentation from the first day concerned ‘novel ecosystems’, environments that many people nowadays imagine are wilderness, but are in fact heavily influenced by human activity. Our ability to measure the wildness of an ecosystem decreases as our childhood memories of nature, which take the place in our minds of the ‘ideal’ environment, become more and more degraded with each generation. It made me wonder about the bush I’d grown up in, which I had thought was rugged and wild, but which had long been encroached upon. It’s still wilderness in my mind though, with the addition of a few pockets of Tasmania and New Zealand. Will I ever see truly wild nature? Whether I do or not, at least I’ll be more aware of judging what wilderness really means.

After a day of listening and a quick change, my mum and I made our way to the Copenhagen Town Hall, which was even more impressive on the inside than the outside. There were grand halls, lots of flags and the busts of many men, and on the walls and ceiling of a stairway, raised reliefs of trees, flowers, gulls circling around chandeliers and clumps of clover. The reception hall, where we were treated to the traditional pancakes that are a specialty of the old building, was hung with town crests and on one wall the crests of Iceland, Greenland, the Faroe islands and Denmark were displayed along with two gilded walrus skulls. I suppose even if you have no overseas territory anymore, it doesn’t do to let anyone else forget what you once had.
Once we were back outside we found a bookstore cafe called Paludan’s, which was extremely cosy. Bookshelves lined the walls, and most of the miss-matched tables were filled with students, office workers, tourists, parents, older couples and hipsters. A shared dinner of nachos (‘I’m not hungry, I’ll just taste yours.’ ‘Tasting isn’t eat half mum.’), tea and a well made cup of coffee followed, a good end to a quite full day.

Gulls and trees

Gulls and trees

One each of the three days of the conference, there were guest speakers before the first run of presentations started. The speaker who made the strongest impression on me was Selina Juul, the founder of Stop Wasting Food. She spoke about the massive amount of food needlessly wasted in many parts of the world and the culture of over-supply. It seems that Denmark is way ahead of many other countries in terms of wastage, partially due to her efforts I think, and it was pretty clear from her presence, passion and past efforts why they decided to make her the Dane of the Year for 2014. She was also willing to put her words into actions, happily eating an unsellable banana as she sat down.

Selina Juul, mid-speech

Selina Juul, mid-speech

My mum’s presentation followed soon after, and went really well, including at the end enthusiastic thanks from members of the audience. I blogged and worked, listened and chatted, talked to a woman from Nigerian about the reality of life in the same country as Boko Haram and drank tea. That day we also decided to wag, just a little, and so crept out around mid-afternoon and enjoyed a walk around the city and another visit to the History Museum.

Endless gears

Endless gears

My mum was also very inistent that I see a clock that she had found in the Town Hall. It was the World Clock, which was started in 1955 and includes the movements of the planets, the days of the year, the seasons and seconds. Most remarkably, it has one gear that completes a revolution every 25,753 years. Which seems as good a symbol of sustainable thinking as anything else I’ve seen.

The World Clock

The World Clock

As night descended we found the Georg Jensen shop and spent a while wandering around gasping at the designs and a lego shop which had every possible kind of lego piece you could imagine. Thus summing of Denmark quite neatly.

All the lego

All the lego

That night we had booked tickets to the official conference dinner to be held at Cafe Petersborg, an old institution in Copenhagen. It sat near the Amalienborg palace, around the corner from the Little Mermaid, in the part of town reserved for flash offices and restaurants that were too fancy or too well-established to be replaced. It dates from the 1700s, and has the low wooden ceiling and a few twisted door frames to prove it. The food was tasty and traditional and the company even better. We shared a table with a Portuguese lady who lived in Brazil and told us almost unbelievable stories of what it’s like to live in São Paulo. We heard about the hopelessness of law enforcement to the regular danger of theft on public transport and in your car, and a girl who was shot at a train station because her coddling parents never taught her to duck when she heard gunshots.
Fortunately our own ride on public transport was much less fraught with danger, the worst risk being that I wouldn’t leave when we reached our stop. The seats were very nice, considering it was a train. I’m not sure if I’d say chaise-longue, but not that far off.

Commuting in Copehagen

Commuting in Copehagen

Before we knew it, we had reached the final day of the conference. It began with a final speaker, and then a day full of ideas and talking. I sat in on a presentation about love ethics in sustainability, agroforestry in Taiwan and then a series about educating for sustainability. It was during this last series that I heard a speech about virtue ethics with reference to ancient philosophy, and Plato in particular. I very much wished, as I sat and listened and then chatted to the presenter about it later, that she had been my philosophy teacher at Uni.
By the time the afternoon ticked around there were far fewer people, most likely because many had left after their presentations of were being tourists.
Finally the end of the day came, with the final speech and a call to continue to work towards a sustainable future.

So the conference was over. For our last night we ate out at a pizza restaurant and enjoyed a final stroll through the city, talking about what we’d learnt, who we’d met and the days to come. The next day we caught a train to my home town, bidding farewell to Copenhagen, so full of greenness, bookstore cafes, endless clocks, strange accents, wonderful folk and history.

The days after Jul

The day after Jul has always been associated with resting and recovering, at least in my old home. We’d wake up late, have a brunch of leftovers, reorder our rooms with the new gifts, flick through the inevitable books and consider the age old question of whether it’s sensible to float around in the pool on the new inflatable sofa while holding a full glass and avoiding spillage. And how long it would be before my sister bombied in and overturned both the sofa, myself and the glass.

For various reasons, not limited to the lack of inflatable sofas and my sister, we had a different day after Jul last year. It was on the 25th for a start.

As mentioned previously, I’m used to having Jul on the 24th according to Scandinavian tradition. I am also used to having it again on the 25th, according to Australian tradition, which isn’t followed in Norway. As such rather than two Juls we had two Boxing Days, both of which we spent in Norway. The first was spent recovering from Jul, heading out for wintery exercise and then a family meal and the second getting into a bit more exercise and finally beginning our journey back to Sweden.

The Julenek

The Julenek

After we had woken up and refreshed ourselves, we had a chat with family back in Australia. Thanks to the miracle of Skype, we were able to chat to a whole party of people enjoying a sunny bbq, and try to get our collective heads around the 50+ temperature difference at either end of the call.

We then packed on layers of jackets, beanies and gloves, grabbed some skiis and went out for some much needed exercise. It isn’t the custom in Norway to spend a whole day relaxing when there is snow outside, and it seemed that the rest of the town had the same idea. My own attempts weren’t quite as skillful, but we managed about an hour before we called home for a ride. While we waited I realised that my eye lashes were freezing together for the first time in my life, and my partner was developing long, frosty threads on my beanie and scarf. Around us the sunny weather belied the cold, and almost fooled us into not noticing the cold. Almost.

If only there was an automatic setting

If only there was an automatic setting

Back at home we unlayered ourselves and dressed up nicely for the visitors who would be arriving soon. They were the family we had met to visit the graveyard the day before, and soon after we had smartened ourselves up they arrived and the Jul celebrations continued.

The tradition on this day is to have a long lunch on the leftovers from the Jul dinner and have another go at the schnaps, which is what we all duly did. Chat, food, jokes and laughter rolled around, and soon we found ourselves under the tree enjoying a selection of biscuits, cakes and treats. The eating and chatting continued long into the evening, and then the guests departed with hugs and hopes to see each other again before too long.

Evening falls

Evening falls

In the relative quiet by the fire, my partner and I unwrapped the final gifts that had been sent my his family, that we had kept back until the Australian Jul day. More chatting, sipping wine, playing with the nutcracker, snacking and reading followed, finished off by sleepy goodbyes and curling up for one last night in Norway.

The nutcracker

The nutcracker

On our final day we decided to have one last go on the spark, and see if we could take some photos at Maihaugen, the local open air museum. The temperature had dropped even more by this time, and clouds covered the sun, so despite the beautiful surroundings and our energetic walking and kicking along, we were soon chilly. During the walk back my chin went completely numb and I ceased to have any feeling in my toes. We did have fun sliding down slopes on the spark, though and going ‘weee’ in a way that I hope didn’t disturb the neighbours.

The stave church at Maihaugen

The stave church at Maihaugen

Before too long is was time to pack and get ready to go, and as we did so snow began to fall, the first we had seen during our trip. So it was with the outside world slightly muffled by falling snow that we said goodbye to our hosts, trying to express our enjoyment and gratitude for the wonderful Jul we’d been invited to share. Then we were out, in the car and then at the station, tromping over to the waiting train.

The snow fall

The snow fall

Jul was over for another year, our first white christmas and hopefully not our last. It was one of the loveliest I have had, and I hope that my writing conjures up the memories of it for you as writing it has done for me.