Ut på landet

Ever since the house-swapping of rusticus mus and urbanus mus people have been living in the city and dreaming of a quiet life on the land. A couple of rolling acres for organic veggies, a chook or 5 and maybe a hive of bees to trade honey for freshly baked bread, when you cycle into town early in the morning. Probably down a lane with overgrown hedges and lowing cows. These images and ones like them linger in our imaginations, especially when the shoving shoulders, bright lights and acres of concrete start to bear down on us.

Out in the country (JG)

Out in the country (JG)

It was into this rustic peace that we found ourselves in last weekend, and not just any piece of country in Sweden. We were in Dalarna, called by Swedes (in particular those from Dalarna) the heart of Sweden. The name translates simply as The Valleys, or Dales, and also gives its name to the Dalahäst, the little painted wooden horse that is as synonymous with Sweden as IKEA. Locals will only consider someone as truly coming from Dalarna if they have at least 3 generations behind them who have lived there, in the same way that citizens of Rome look down on families who have been living in their city for only 100 years. And in the small towns that dot the valleys you can be sure that your genealogical qualifications, of lack thereof, will not be secret for long.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Our journey to Dalarna began with the loading of luggage into a friend’s van, the usual pre-boarding faffle and then we were off. Two Australians and three Swedes, ready for whatever adventure the world might throw at us.
The first adventure thrown at us arrived with a bang on the highway, as the left rear wheel suspension snapped. After a period of masculine grunting and considering, our luggage was moved to the right side of the boot and we continued, with slightly less vim.
The drive took about 7 hours, including stops for coffee and dinner, and the continual chatter from the backseat. There is a lot to see on the drive from Gothenburg to Dalarna. Mostly it is trees, but there are a lot of them. And horses. As the night drew on even those sights were lost in the darkness, only broken by the lights of farm houses and towns in the distance.
The place that we would be staying at was a BnB/bakery owned by a friend of a friend, which we barely looked at as we stretched our legs, grabbed our luggage and tramped into our accommodation. After tea and picking beds we all fell asleep.

Baking starts early

Baking starts early

The reason for the trip, other than to visit Dalarna, was an annual party hosted by the friend of a friend who owns the BnB/bakery with her partner, bringing old and new friends from Dalarna together for food, company and music.

So it was that after we woke up at a respectiably weekend time, had a three hour brunch of freshly baked bread, cheese and eggs, played with the dog, went out for supplies, visited a bakery (more on that in the next post) and had gotten dressed up, the party preparations were well underway. Which is to say that somewhere there were people doing something, but the bustle mostly passed us by, as we greeted guests and poked around trying not to get under foot. Once the party began our jobs became very clear, and we happily joined in with eating the piles of locally sourced food and sipping the home brewed beer and cider that my partner had brought. He ended up doing something of a tasting, offering tastes to all those sitting around us, and answering questions as though his brews came from a brewery rather than our spare room.

Höstfest dinner

Höstfest dinner (JG)

There were people from all over the area and further afield at the party, connected by families and friends, some of whom lived a few valleys away and only saw each other once a year or who bought bread from each other weekly. We spent a while chatting to a psychologist couple from Stockholm, and another younger couple who turned out to be living on the land in an old farm house just down the road in the charmingly named Pingbo. All of whom were patient with our not quite yet fluent Swedish.

After helping ourselves to a mountainous fruit salad, we heard music starting on the floor below and went down the stairs to find the head baker ripping away on a violin while one of our roadtrip friends heaved away on his accordion. They brought people to their feet with a brisk waltz, then settled in for folk songs, improvising and skipping from song to song as we clapped our hands. Sometimes people sang along to songs from childhood or quickly found lyrics on phones, and calling out suggestions.

Folk dancing

Folk dancing (JG)

As our glasses emptied we began to yawn and so left the party swinging away until late into the night, or early in the morning, long after we’d crawled under the covers and fallen asleep.

Violin and accordion folk songs

Violin and accordion folk songs(JG)

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City reflections and the Semla saga

Church reflection

Late last week I was asked if I could come to an interview at the okristlig (‘ungodly’) time of 8 ‘o’ clock, in a school across the city and the river. Obviously I refused and slept in.

Ha.

After the interview it was still early, the more so as autumn has officially Set In, and was gradually becoming bright and chill, with blue skies and a slight breeze sweeping through the streets. As there was no point going home only to head out again soon after for Swedish class, I decided to take a stroll around my adopted city and watch it waking up.

Brunsparken in the morning

Brunsparken in the morning

My plan was to find a cosy cafe and ensconce myself with a warm drink and some sort of pastry. Considering my general indecisiveness and habit of being easily distracted, I was quite fortunate that morning in having a destination in mind.

Earlier that week a friend of mine from Swedish class convinced me that what we really needed more than anything else was a semla. This is a traditional Swedish pastry, usually a soft, sweet bun filled with almond paste and cream and served in a bowl of milk. We asked our teacher for any tips about how to find them in the city and he suggested an old cafe that he was fond of. They would have semlas if anyone does, he said. Hurrah, we replied, and thus armed with a goal and an appetite we hit the streets.

A short time later we were victoriously marching into the cafe in question, and asking the ladies at the counter for their best semlas. Alas, they had none. They seemed surprised that we would ask for them, as they usually only come out after Jul. Oh, obviously, we said and went outside to consider our next move. We could both recall recently seeing semlas but couldn’t recall where they had been seen, so we decided to do some general looking around in the hopes that they would turn up.

An hour and a half later found us semlaless but a bit heavier by two pancakes a piece, complete with jam and cream, seated outside one of my favourite cafes in Haga. It was Thursday, you see, and Thursday is pancake day in Sweden. I do not question this wisdom.

Pancakes!

Pancakes!

I mention this saga because it was during the morning stroll around the city that I decided to give that first cafe another chance. It was nearly empty when I stepped in, aside from a few pensioners and regulars darting in to get their takeaway breakfast snacks. I chose a warm, sweet drink and a similarly warm, sweet pastry (with fruit!) and seated myself by a window to enjoy them. More customers came and went, reading the paper or sipping coffee and watching the world slowly move past outside.

Soon my dishes were empty and I joined the people walking past the window, the air chilling my face just enough to wake me up. From there I walked around, not aimlessly but rather making up my route along the way. I passed closed and opening shops, chattering students and people on their way to work. I caught Göteborg at a time I hadn’t before.

In Kungsportsplatsen King Charles’ head was just beginning to catch the sunlight.

King Charles IX

King Charles IX

Old churches and new construction was reflected in canals, as well as autumnal trees in the city park.

Church reflection

Church reflection

Pigeons stared back at me as I watched them and tried to look unruffled as they settled their feathers.

Suspicious pigeons

Suspicious pigeons

Trams and buses jangled past carrying a city’s worth of inhabitants, dinging to warn pedestrians whose were darting in front of them.

A young woman dared the morning chill with a short skirt, striding along with her thick jacketed friends.

Ducks foraged among the flowers in the cemetery and squawked around a mother and her daughter feeding them seeds.

As I wandered I was reminded of a chapter in The Sandman by Neil Gaiman, in which a man wakes up in the dream of a city. Whether or not cities dream, and whether or not it is possible to escape from them once that happens, or what should happen if they ever wake, I enjoy playing with the idea of a living city. It has a personality, a sense that sets it apart from all other cities and which it’s inhabitants recognise without being able to articulate.

Kungsportsbron on a clear morning

Kungsportsbron on a clear morning

As part of getting to know someone you need to see them in all seasons, times and weathers. The morning face of Göteborg in Autumn is cold, bright and calm as the surface of the canals, lightly riffled by the sea breeze that also spreads multi-coloured leaves across footpaths to be crunched under foot or tossed into piles.

Even if I can’t articulate the Göteborgness of Göteborg, I hope I can now at least describe one of her many faces.

A way from Rome

The day of my birthday dawned bright, and for once we were up early, rushing to catch a bus back to the airport. Going home already, you ask? Thankfully not, though we were about to have a change of scenery.

Soon after arriving at the airport we were leaving again, hitting the road quite carefully in a cute little Fiat 500, and managing to stay on the wrong side of the road. (I fear that no matter how long I spend overseas, the right side will always be the wrong side) We headed back towards the city looking out for the Porta San Sebastiano, from where the Via Appia Antica begins. After a bit of misdirection, we were pootling along, the vine covered walls of villas leaning over the old road giving the impression of a little country town. Soon the bitumen turned to cobbles, and bumped along though we were, could see now and then a plaque or worn slab of marble that had once been part of the forest of monuments that had lined the road. Though occasionally rising and falling, the road never diverged from a straight line, and though I’m not absolutely sure, I think most of the cobbles may be original or at least from Roman times.

The Appian Way

The Appian Way

They were the same wide, grey stones from the Forum, and I hope that they would have been better maintained in ancient times, because anyone regularly driving a cart or chariot up the road would have eventually lost their teeth or sanity to the jolting. Fortunately the traffic slowed as the land on either side of the road opened up, and we were able to roll along gazing around for landmarks. The first one that we found was the Circus of Maxentius, the most intact Roman circus in the world, which was probably only used once.

Starting gates

Starting gates

The park where it sits is mostly grassy fields with little white flowers, the perfect first stop on our first trip out of the city. For most of the time we were there, we were the only visitors, and so I was able to walk along the spina, occasionally surprising basking lizards.

The spina, in a field

The spina, in a field

We then made out leisurely way to the Mausoleum of Caecilia Metella, which is interesting in a number of ways. It’s the way of history to have very little pattern in the things that are preserved, so rather than a tomb to Cicero, Cornelia Africana or Vespasian, we were left with a towering monument to a woman known only as the daughter in law of Crassus. The monument is more a dedication to the Licinii and Metelli families than the woman herself, and any indication about who she was, if there ever was anything, is long gone. In the time since it’s dedication, the tomb had been looted, and converted into a tower from which to guard the road that passes under it’s shadow. If all the old mausoleums of the old families were this size, it must have seemed to travellers that they were passing through a strangely abandoned town, rather than graveyards.

Remembering Caecilia Metella

Remembering Caecilia Metella

Continuing onwards we came to a stretch that looked like the romantic pictures of the road, with tombs lining the sides and pines towering above. We marched up and down for a while, admiring the remains of mausoleums and fragments of tombs from which faces sometimes watched us. The sun gradually began to fade, so we climbed back into the car and rolled onwards over the ancient stones, imagining the sights that this road must have seen, from marching hob-nailed sandals heading out to the edges of the empire to a cart carrying a small family hoping for a better life in the world’s first big city. I forgot on the day that the road would also have seen the 6000 slaves caught when Spartacus was defeated, crucified along either side for miles. There’s no trace left of them, though I suspect Spartacus would have been a bit pleased to be known all these years later, if baffled at the justice, freedom and liberty heroics ascribed to him.

A not-forgotten family

A not-forgotten family

The final stop before we started climbing the hills to the south was the Villa of the Quintilli, a massive estate – no really, it’s huge. We only spent about an hour and a half, in which we only saw about half, and that while repeating, ‘no, we really must move on now,’ ‘this is the last little detour’ and ‘absolutely, the last one, yes.’
The estate is a large area of land with the Villa in the centre, perched on a hill. People used to think it was an ancient town due to it’s size, but apparently it was originally a Republican villa that was expanded by the Quintilli brothers around the 2nd century and was grand enough that the emperor Commodus decided he’d quite like it himself, actually, and had the brothers killed.

An ancient mosaic

An ancient mosaic

Even though we only have the ruins of the baths, dining rooms, servants quarters, halls, exercise arenas and other areas, I think I can understand why he did it. I’m surprised it isn’t more well known, actually, and though it doesn’t really compare to Ostia and Pompeii in terms of size, the impression of a grand villa, with mosaics and marble still lining the floors and giant arches above the baths have more of a sense of completeness and grandeur than many of the tenement blocks in those towns.

Bathhouse arches

Bathhouse arches

Unfortunately by this stage we were getting peckish, so we reluctantly headed back down the hill, and onwards on our journey.

Following the recommendation of the woman from whom I’d bought a painting, we were heading to Nemi, a volcanic lake nestled in the Castelli Romani region just south of Rome. To get there we wound our way up the hills, passing the beautiful Lake Albano and snatches of lake side towns and then further upwards through tree-lined roads, until a steep descending road to the right indicated that Nemi was close. We came through a small tunnel, and found ourselves in a picturesque town perched on cliffs above an almost perfectly circular lake. The sun had come out again, and the surface of the sheltered lake seemed completely calm, reflecting the tree lined valley sides. I could wax even more poetically, but I fear I have not the adjectives.

Nemi

Nemi

Having parked our cars we wandered along the main street overlooking the lake, looking for somewhere to eat and wondering where the sound of a waterfall was coming from. We settled on a restaurant that had a balcony sticking out over the valley, from which it was hard to draw out gazes away. Down by the shores of the lake we could see strawberry farms, and a few houses, but otherwise the hills seemed bare. I’d read something about a temple of Diana being built here (thank you again Lindsey Davis), and I can imagine why.

Nemi on the cliff

Nemi on the cliff

Another claim to fame were two giant pleasure ships that Nero had built there, which were then sunk after his death. Much later Mussolini had the lake drained to retrieve the ships, and they were moved to a nearby museum, which was soon after burnt down by Nazi forces, as if people needed further reasons to be annoyed at them.

A local delicacy

A local delicacy

There was no sign of emperors, ships or armies as we ate lunch and drank wine, and enjoyed local strawberries, soaking in the beautiful scenery. We eventually had to leave, buying a little bottle of strawberry liquor and mixed berries and staring at the view as we went.

Heading back to Rome we drove around the other side, passing the Pope’s holiday estate by Lake Albano and winding streets in the town close-by. Soon we were dropping off the car and catching a bus back into the city, where we had a stroll through the streets before a dinner at home, including some very tasty and fresh mixed berries.

Copenhagen, city of bikes

So what do I know about Denmark? It’s the bit of land that looks as though it’s about to be gobbled by Sweden and Norway, it had its share of Vikings in the day, Hamlet, Princess Mary and a friend I knew many years ago called Dane.

Armed with this extensive knowledge, my partner and I decided to take a trip to Copenhagen last weekend, for the simple reason that it was the weekend and it’s possible to get there by train in just under 4 hours. If you’ve never lived in Perth, or Australia, this fact may not seem exceptional to you. Take my word for it though, it’s pretty exciting.

Having been there, what is the strongest impression I have of the city? I would have to say it’s cityness. By this I mean not only the size of Copenhagen, but the permanence, heaviness and reality, the feeling that I got in Stockholm, Sydney, Rome and Paris. An entity unto itself. In comparison Göteborg seems cosy and small.

Then there are the bikes. Oh the bikes! They have double storey bike racks, and still bikes litter the streets. I had thought Göteborg was bike mad, but I knew nothing. If I’d arrived from another galaxy and was looking for the dominant life form in Copehagen, Ford Prefect style, I’d have been shaking handlebars and probably getting knocked over by a speeding Dane.

A Louis Vuitton bike

Jokes aside, it is good to see how people are embracing more sustainable and healthy forms of transport over here in Scandinavia. Copenhagen is apparently the Green City for 2014, and I bet if they could work out a way to make bike-powered heating they’d be set for centuries to come.

Bikes

Aside from that, Copenhagen was a fascinating place to explore, rich in history and full of diversity. There were castles, some containing the current royal family, others open for tourists to wander around and see objects from what seemed an unbroken history of kings and queens. One that we visited was Rosenborg Castle, which had been built as a summer house by Christian IV, and in time became somewhere to store the things no one needed so much any more.
It was full of personal items, and paintings and even an old chair with a built in whoopee cushion which sprays water when you sit down, locks you in and then dribbles water onto the floor when you stand up, as if the victim had just wet themselves, no doubt with mirth at the hilarity they were undergoing. Oh the laughs they must have had.
A few floors up from the chair was the throne room, decorated with tapestries and leading to the coronation thrones of the absolutist Kings and Queens of Denmark. I take this to mean that in the modern era of reduced absolutism these aren’t required any longer, though they were still guarded by three almost life sized silver lions, whose duty it is to guard the body of the Danish King when he dies. The thrones were made of narwhal tusk, for the King, and silver for the Queen, and as I saw them and approached I had to resist the urge to curtsey.

Guarding the thrones

Below these, in the basement, we found the treasury. There were casks and bottles of wine from the castle, elaborate saddles that a King had ridden to his coronation on and the crown jewels. There were 3 crowns, 2 from the recent past in the typical crown design with the red velvet cap, and one a bit older, with incredibly intricate designs of angels and flowers made out in enamel, pearls, jewels, gold and silver. There was also an orb and sceptre, and racks of beautiful and precious items.

A prayer book

The plan had been to also visit the Danish Museum, which is currently running an exhibition about Vikings, though for various reasons we went to the Copenhagen Museum instead. In addition to being free is also displayed items found in canals and moats with details of their origins and purpose, which turned out to be fascinating.

In addition to possibly having more time there than we had (and not staying at the same hotel…), I would recommend going on a canal boat tour. Not only is there the novelty of floating along the canals, but a lot of the city can be seen from the maze of canals that run through it. Unfortunately the one we went on didn’t include Christiania, which is on my list of places for a return journey, but we got to see a multitude of grand palaces, castle and city buildings, a 100 year old mermaid on a rock and the highest rated restaurant in the world.

Copenhagen from a canal

So what other memories did I bring from this city? A very delicious dinner in Nyhavn, wandering the cold streets to delay the return to the hotel and diversions at a bar to soften the effects of the same, rain and a stately, very well organised city, that contains a lot of bikes. I hope to go again, and perhaps see the streets from the perspective that the locals prefer; on two wheels and at speed.

Dinner in Nyhavn