It’s Merchant City Festival time again, and included in this year’s programme is the opportunity to visit Greyfriars Garden. This wonderful little green space, almost within touching distance of George Square, is a fabulous advertisement for the value – both aesthetically and horticulturally – of urban gardens, as well as to the skill of the gardeners themselves.
Located on Shuttle Street, almost across from High Street station, the garden is circled by the tower blocks of Strathclyde University, as well as the profusion of student residences that have sprung up in recent years in this part of the city.
The site was originally that of a medieval friary. The Greyfriars who lived here were Franciscan monks, known for their care of the poor and the sick and, appropriately, renowned for their orchard and vegetables.
Medieval Glasgow was an important religious and educational centre and the Greyfriars were also responsible for establishing the city’s first hospital, across the road from the present day Royal Infirmary. Sadly, the friary was ransacked during the Reformation and one of the friars reputedly burnt at the stake.
Today, the garden consists of 42 small raised bed allotments, constructed from recycled materials and containing a wide variety of vegetables, fruit and pollen-rich flowers.
Membership is open to residents of nearby Merchant City, Trongate, Ladywell and High Street north. It costs £10 per year and, unsurprisingly, there is a waiting list. The garden was established in 2012 and is a stalled (temporary) space, so its future is uncertain.
If you have the chance, please visit. The Greyfriars Garden Association hosts various other open days during the year and is happy to arrange other visits.
Contact them at: email@example.com
After missing last year’s event through negligently failing to apply for tickets in time, I did manage to remember this year’s date and successfully secured my place several weeks ago. Undeterred by a foot injury, even a perfect spring day, – the hottest so far, this year, in the city – couldn’t keep me away.
The Victorian splendour of the Briggait Glasgow’s old fish market, provided an appropriate setting for the profusion of gleaming brass and chrome on display across the main hall.
One of the great advantages of living in Scotland’s biggest city these days – up there with better cycling provision and ever-expanding foodie options – is the amazing variety of locally roasted beans now available, as well as the burgeoning range of indie and speciality cafes where they can be sampled.
Highlights were discovering some new kids on the block; Davide for his very informative backstory of Ovenbird (about to try my first flat white with Wegida Blue Natural); McCune Smith for the scrumptious amaretto and Glenfiddich brownie; and the lovely lady from Indycoffeeguides.
Armed with my new Scotland copy, complete with its essential advice on cycling friendly establishments, I’m well set for my trip north to Skye later in the summer and a detour to Dundee now looks to be in order, en route to the Fife coast in the autumn.
Thanks to Dear Green for an excellent (on the house) flat white and for hosting the event. I’m still hopeful you can come up with some letterbox-friendly packaging so your beans can be delivered straight to my door later in the year!
Spring – calendar, if not temperature-wise – a three week window between other commitments and a train journey to north west Europe, so no excuse not to have a city break, or three.
I was on my way to Denmark to visit friends in southern Jutland and had already organised a few days in Copenhagen in the middle of my break. But, as I was travelling there by train, via Cologne and Hamburg, the opportunity to visit these two cities was too good to miss.
First city; Cologne.
Using Eurostar and Deutsch Bahn’s wonderful ICE high-speed trains, you can be in Cologne a little over five hours after leaving London (and this includes connection time in Brussels). Have a look at By Train to Denmark for full details.
Emerging from the station the majestic edifice of Cologne’s thirteenth century cathedral dominated the skyline every bit as much as I remembered from my only previous visit many years before; the massive scale of the building perhaps best demonstrated by the dark shadow its 157m spire threw across the entire Bahnhofvorplatz on what was a very bright spring afternoon.
This Gothic masterpiece was the major reason for my return visit to the city, but that treat was for tomorrow. For the moment, I headed for my hotel, the CityClass Residence am Dom, an easy ten minute stroll from the station.
Pleasant, helpful staff, an uncomplicated check-in and great city view from my window, left a positive first impression of the Cologne and its people. As it was a pleasant late afternoon and I had been travelling for several hours, I wasted little time in taking a walk round the city to make the most of the remaining hours of daylight.
Cologne is an impressive retail centre, with many department chains and specialist stores, but I headed for a rather more specialised and bizarre shopping destination; the Scotia Spirit Whisky shop. Yes, I’m aware of the irony, but buying whisky in Germany, en route from Scotland to Denmark, is not quite so strange once the benefits of not having to carry the bottle as far and, the lower cost and greater selection – particularly compared to the paltry choice and high prices on offer at Eurostar’s terminal – are taken into account.
I’m not a whisky drinker, but I was seriously impressed with the display and the staff expertise. My visit to Scotia Spirit was equally memorable for an extended and interesting conversation on the UK’s (then) forthcoming referendum on EU membership. It also confirmed how much more the average European knows about the UK, than we do about them (or, indeed ourselves) and, in retrospect, how utterly tragic that the general goodwill on the continent towards this country has been so shattered by a decision based on unfounded hysteria and untruths.
Next morning, my only full day in Cologne, there was only one destination. In the late nineteenth century it was the tallest building in the world; it’s still the largest Gothic church in Germany and the tallest Roman Catholic cathedral in the world, so there are more than a few reasons to visit Cologne Cathedral. My first port of call was the ticket office to gain entry to the spire. 532 steps later, the view over the city and Rhine, was, as expected, spectacular, but also confirmed the strategic importance of the cathedral.
On the descent there was time to inspect the huge bells that ring out over the city. These massive castings again give a wonderful insight into the scale of the cathedral while the stained glass windows in the body of the cathedral are simply breathtaking. The grainy photograph of the twin spires, in the midst of a devastated landscape, remains an indelible image of the destruction of World War Two. Visiting churches and cathedrals is my default position on short city breaks, not for any religious reason, but as an ideal way of gaining a historical insight into the area and its people.
I couldn’t leave the city without buying an item almost as firmly associated with Cologne as the cathedral: its eponymous perfume. Although heavily commercialised, its inimitable scent and characteristic gold and turquoise bottle always remind me of teenage days and my first proper perfume.
The lure of the cathedral will always draw me back to Cologne, but this attractive, confident city has much else to offer, particularly as an easy-to-reach destination by train, as well as an ideal starting point for further travels in Germany.
Next city; Copenhagen.
I travelled there after a week with friends in southern Jutland. Unfortunately, there was little evidence of spring sunshine and I arrived in the city in the midst of a blizzard; inclement conditions that were to last for the duration of my stay. But, the few windows of intense, freezing sunlight were ideal for some vivid pictures of the lively colours of Nyhavn waterfront.
Good advice from my friends led me to the Hotel Bethel a former sailors’ hostel overlooking the canal and the characteristic 17th century merchants’ houses along the harbour. Efficient, helpful, welcoming and reasonably priced by Copenhagen standards, it proved an ideal location in the midst of the bars and restaurants of Nyhavn, yet only a few minutes walk from the city centre.
Nyhavn itself, proved an immediate and obvious attraction. The waterfront along the canal, dating from the reign of Christian V in the 1670s, was originally constructed to link the old inner city at Kongens Nytorv (King’s Square) with the sea. Subsequently, it became better known for sailors, beer and prostitution. Interestingly, its most famous resident was Hans Christian Andersen, who lived in Nyhavn for 18 years.
As canal transport declined, the area fell into disrepair, but has been revitalised over the last 40 years since it was designated as a veteran ship and museum harbour. The stretch of canal between Nyhavn Bridge and Kong’s Nytorv is lined with old ships and this, along with numerous eating and drinking establishments, now attracts thousands of tourists.
The bars and restaurants tend to be quite commercialised and very crowded, so choose your venue carefully if you want to eat/drink here. Although it was bitterly cold, there were still loads of al fresco diners: the provision of blankets (common across Denmark) no doubt a godsend, but still not enough of an incentive for me to brave the elements.
Next day a relentless blizzard thwarted my ‘free’ city bus tour – technically the top of the bus may have been covered, but the tarpaulin did nothing to combat the cold and the visibility was zilch. So, where better to take refuge than in a museum? The National Museum of Denmark, centrally located, warm, with exhibits ranging from Viking artefacts to a hash stall from Christiana, ticked all the boxes. An additional attraction was undoubtedly the stylish museum shop, although prices of the designer knitwear were a little outwith my budget.
As with any good national museum, the collections are too extensive to be fully appreciated in one visit. Do your homework first and be selective with what you prioritise as a must-see, particularly if there are any temporary exhibitions on display. Sadly, since my visit, this has become even more advisable as the government has now levied an admission charge, here and at the National Gallery. Coming from a city with an extensive array of museums and galleries, almost all of which are free, I find it regrettable when other places charge for national collections.
Cold, wet days call for three things: excellent coffee, comfortable sofas and dependable WiFi and, happily, the slushy trudge to Risteriet in Copenhagen’s Inner Vesterbro didn’t disappoint. Until then, I had found the standard of coffee in Denmark, with a couple of notable exceptions, something of a let down, but this rich, creamy flat white hit the spot, the staff were unobtrusively knowledgable and the reassuringly shabby sofas ideal for a warm, comfortable, quiet half hour.
Although the weather was not conducive to sightseeing on foot, Risteriet is situated on the edge of one of Copenhagen’s coolest destinations, Kodbyen; literally translated as ‘Meat City’. Denmark has never been short of butchers, but as with London’s Smithfield Market and Manhattan’s Meatpacking District, in the last decade the Danish capital has seen the fusion of butchery with hipsters, trendy bars and restaurants, avant-garde galleries and cutting-edge hairdressers. With a fixed 24/7 modus operandi and some reasonably-priced (for Copenhagen) eating and drinking establishments, it’s well worth a stroll – at any time of day or night.
Kodbyen is only a few minutes walk back to the city centre, so what better way to spend the remnants of a dreich afternoon than in a knitting shop; yes, a proper yarn shop, complete with shelves of wool, needles, patterns and helpful, expert staff. If Scandi-mania has inspired you to get knitting, then make sure Sommerflugen is on your itinerary
Usually I have a theme for my city visits – this one was to visit iconic churches for their historical insight and then climb their spires for the view – and, although the weather had been an impediment, I was able to fit in a quick look round Copenhagen’s most visually intriguing church on my last morning.
The remarkable twisted spire of the Church of Our Saviour in the Christianshavn district, is visible across Copenhagen. Despite dire warnings that it was not for the faint hearted, I was determined to climb the exterior steps to the dome and a window of watery sunshine next morning gave me the opportunity.
Dating from the 1680s, this rare Baroque Danish church took 16 years to build, particularly as its foundations lie on a filled-in sea bed. The precise design of the interior deserved more time to admire, but it was the magnificent 17th organ, the oldest in Denmark, that took my eye. Miraculously, it survived the many city fires of the 18th century, as well as the British bombardment of 1807 and it is incredible to realise the pipes that are still used in all services and performances in the church, date from over 300 years ago.
The unique spire was not completed until 1752 and rises to 90 metres above the floor of the church. Of the 400 steps, the last 150 wind their way around the outside of the spire. At the top, I touched the golden globe (considered a test of manhood!) and was grateful that, although it can apparently house 12 adults, this morning there were only two of us. On the descent I spent a few minutes admiring another treasure of Our Saviour’s; the amazing 48-bell carillon. If you happen to be in the city at 4pm on a Saturday, listen out for the weekly rendition of the bells.
Ever since I received a childhood postcard of the Little Mermaid, I have wanted to visit Copenhagen. Unfortunately the statue, while not an unexpected disappointment, didn’t exactly blow me away. The weather could have been better but, coming from Scotland, you learn not to let the elements, however inclement, spoil your travels.
Copenhagen Free Walking Tours promised much, but delivered little. Having tour guide experience myself, I appreciate the demands, but after 90 minutes of best bar recommendations and irritating Aussie Pom-bashing, I was too bored to bother with the second half of the walk. In retrospect, the experience confirmed the old maxims that there’s no such thing as a free lunch and you get what you pay for.
But those minor irritations in no way detracted from my positive impressions of the city. As a cycle freak, despite the snow, I stood in awe and envy as the mass hordes of two-wheeled commuters swept through the city at rush hour, and as a admirer of Scandinavian design, food, knitting, hygge, I was in my own special Nirvana.
Final city: Hamburg.
Travelling here from southern Jutland resembled a living history lesson as we crossed the Kiel Canal and passed through names evocative of the Schleswig-Holstein question in the mid 19th century and several of the other momentous events that led to the unification of Germany.
My hotel, the Europaeischer straight across from the station, could not have been more convenient. With exceptionally well-informed and helpful staff, a good restaurant, small gym and inclusive free city travel for three days, it proved to be the best stay of the trip. Its central location, although slightly edgy in the evenings, provided great access to the city centre, the interesting St Georg area and a wide range of eating and drinking options.
Hamburg has been on my places-to-visit list for a long time. Maritime cities have always fascinated me and Hamburg, the historic ‘gateway to the world’, a cornerstone of the Hanseatic League, with its trading links across the globe is, by any standards, up there with the best. Its uncanny ability to survive and prosper, despite repeated destruction by fire, floods and war also adds to its attraction. Although long before I had little more than a cursory knowledge of European history, I just wanted to see Hamburg because that’s where the Beatles became famous.
Germany’s second largest city and biggest port certainly throws up the quandary of so much to see, so little time, but given my fascination with Hamburg’s maritime past, there was no debate about my first destination next morning: the fabulous Internationales Maritimes Museum Hamburg (IMMH) Housed in the oldest preserved warehouse in the Hafen district, the collection covers 10 floors and includes 40,000 items and over a million photographs, largely based on the private collection of journalist and publisher, Peter Tamm.
But, you don’t need to be a seafaring type to enjoy the museum. The exhibits include 47 original letters written by Horatio Nelson, over 15,000 cruise ship menus and a 3,000 year old dug out from the River Elbe. There is the requisite cafe and shop (both of rather higher standard than usual heritage offerings) and it does cost – around £10 on my visit, sadly more now given the post-Brexit collapse of the pound. But I spent nearly five hours engrossed in a fascinating, dramatically displayed collection and, if I had a complaint, it would be that even that wasn’t enough time.
It was also a brilliantly sunny afternoon and the kind of fresh, spring temperature conducive to a city wander. And as I stepped out of the museum, the surrounding Speicherstadt (warehouse district) was the ideal place to start. Constructed at the end of the 19th and now with UNESCO World Heritage status, this “City of Warehouses” is the largest warehouse district in the world. The buildings stand on wooden-pile foundations and, although the area is being redeveloped, unusually, it still has many working warehouses, including those trading goods, such as coffee, cocoa, tea and spices, around which this free trade zone originally developed.
On the way back to my hotel I passed the lovely churches of St Katharina and St Petri – both very definitely on my radar for a churches, spires and bells day tomorrow.
Retrospective reading can often be interesting and so it proved with the St Georg district of the city. If I had read, and believed, the lurid warnings about drugs, prostitution, violence and so on, that seem to preface any mention of the area, I doubt I would have ventured out of the hotel at all, let alone at night. But unaware of the its infamous reputation, I went out and wandered around on a cool and light evening. A tasty snack in an efficient Middle Eastern fast food outlet, a stroll to the waterside past the grandiose Hotel Atlantic and a beer in the company of some well-informed young Americans, combined to bring an excellent day to a very pleasant end.
A brilliantly sunny final day provided the ideal conditions to conclude my theme of church visits and spire climbs. In Hamburg, as with everywhere else, the difficulty was selecting a few from the many. Starting with the nearest, Hauptkirche St Petri (St Peter’s Church) is built on the site of several previous cathedrals. Its bronze lion-head door handles are the oldest works of art in the city and, last but not least, its 132m tower afforded wonderful views of the city, its river and canals on a crystal clear morning.
Its near neighbour St Katharina’s (St Catherine’s) is another of the five principal Lutheran churches (Hauptkirchen) of the city. I was particularly keen to see the base of its 13th spire as it is the second oldest preserved building in Hamburg. St Catherine’s traditionally served as the church of the seamen of Hamburg and, although the spire was closed for repairs, the highlight of the visit was seeing its marvellous restored organ – the original, which survived until the bombing of WW2, dated from the 15th century and JS Bach was one of the famous musicians who performed on it.
On then to St Michaelis (St Michael’s) via a much-too-brief at the stunning Neo-Renaissance town hall, the Rathaus (definitely on the list for a longer, future visit). Known colloquially as Michel, St Michael’s is regarded as the most famous church in Hamburg. One of the finest of all Hanseatic Baroque churches, it is unusual as it was purpose built as a Protestant church. A similar height to St Peter’s, its 132m high copper-covered spire has long been a dominant feature of the Hamburg skyline, as well as a landfall mark for ships sailing up the Elbe. And, apropos nothing, I did climb all the way to the top and walked back down, forgoing the lift.
Located in a secluded corner of the 17th century Neustadt district, St Michael’s is just round the corner from Elbe Park. A now warm and sunny late afternoon and the chance to see the Bismarck Memorial at close quarters put paid to the original plan of visiting what was once, also (albeit very briefly) the tallest building in the world, the tower of St Nikolia (St Nicholas’) Church. But St Peter’s, St Catherine’s and St Michael’s had provided a compelling insight into the importance of the Lutheran church, as well as the style of Hamburg’s ecclesiastical architecture; and of course, a useful cardio-vascular workout.
Hamburg, as Germany’s second largest city, is another first-class shopping centre. Until now, I had confined myself to some limited window shopping, but I couldn’t help but notice the abundance of outdoor gear shops in the city centre: and not just small specialist retailers, but huge sports department stores with separate floors devoted to running, hiking, aerobics, cycling and just about everything in between.
I’m something of a Germanophile when it comes to footwear, so the opportunity to buy a pair of leather-lined Meindl multi-activity boots, unavailable in the UK, was too good to miss. The attractive, helpful, multi-lingual young men who served me were also happy to dispose of my trusty, old, scuffed pair.
I set off from the Hauptbahnhof next morning, determined to return to Hamburg for a future visit: always the ultimate accolade for any destination.
Verdict: already a convert to continental rail travel, I needed little excuse to include some city stop-offs on my way to and from Jutland. As always, the contrast between urban discovery and rural exploration was a highlight of the holiday. All three cities are sophisticated, confident metropoles, with distinctive character and history, plenty of culture, coffee and cycle friendly: definitely my kind of places.
Getting to Denmark by train is a breeze, especially if you are the kind of traveller who makes the journey as much a part of your holiday as the destination. In addition, it provides an ideal excuse for a couple of city stop-offs en route. And, you don’t need to live in or around London to consider it; although I live over 400 miles away, I made this into an advantage as it gave me the excuse to recreate one of my favourite childhood experiences and journey to and from the capital by sleeper.
As with any proposed European rail journey, make your first port of call Mark Smith’s indispensable Seat61 Here you’ll find all you need to know, and more, on routes, fares, tickets, connections, as well as a wealth of additional information on major locations.
Loco2 sells tickets for destinations across Europe. You can book online, or by phone. Finalising my dates in late February for a departure in late April and return in early May, gave me just enough time to take advantage of cheaper advance fares. Although this is not always ideal and does conspire against last minute decisions, many European rail providers now work on the same basis as those in Britain and offer bargain fares when the ticketing window opens, usually three months before date of departure. This, of course, is also how most airline ticketing operates.
Step 1: Getting to London
As international rail travel from the UK begins and ends with Eurostar, your initial journey will be to St Pancras International, or Ebbsfleet/Ashford if you live in the south east.
But if you don’t, no problem. A little-known option is to buy a ticket direct from your local station that covers your entire journey through to Paris, Brussels, and other major destinations in the Netherlands and western Europe.
You can, of course, by-pass London and Eurostar completely and travel to the continent by ferry.
Although, sadly, European sleeper trains have been cut back recently, in the UK overnight services still operate between London and five destinations in Scotland, six nights a week. Now living near Glasgow, I jumped at the chance to travel once again on a journey I remember fondly from my childhood.
The Caledonian Sleeper service is now operated by a new franchise and, hopefully, the upgraded rolling stock promised for 2018 will improve the current fittings, which, although clean, are rather dated and shabby in places. However, both my outward and return journeys were quiet, comfortable, on time with attentive and helpful staff.
The big advantage of taking the sleeper – apart from its environmental and romantic attractions (think Robert Donat in the original 1935 version of the 39 Steps ) – is the flexibility it affords in travelling while asleep, leaving late evening and arriving fresh and relaxed early morning.
It also does not necessarily need to be expensive. I travelled alone and did not want to share a compartment. Even so, booking in advance, I secured tickets for around £80 each way. Given that single compartments are first class and, the fare also includes overnight accommodation, this did not seem at all excessive.
If you travel as a couple, or a family, or in a group, fares can be much cheaper – and great fun for children.
I chose to leave London around 11am, arriving Brussels in less than two hours, as it was the most convenient and affordable service for me. There are several other options
Arriving Brussels Midi just after 14.00, my connection left 20 minutes later. This was potentially the only stressful element of the journey because of security restrictions at Midi, but using Mark Smith’s useful advice there was no problem.
Step 3: Brussels to Cologne
Travelling first class in a state-of-the-art ICE train in less than two hours, was one of the highlights of my holiday.
Sitting comfortably at a spacious seat, with table service for meals and refreshments as we sped through pleasant countryside at about 180 mph, what was not to like?
I chose to spend a couple of nights in Cologne before continuing to Hamburg, but it is perfectly possible to reach Hamburg just after 21.00 the same evening.
There is plenty of choice as frequent trains run between the two cities. However, study timetables carefully as some trains are much quicker than others. Most are InterCity but some are the faster and better-equipped ICEs.
Hamburg and Cologne are both ideal destinations for a city break. Read about my visits to both cities on my outward and return journeys.
Step 5: Hamburg into Denmark:
From Hamburg you have several options, depending on where in Denmark you are heading to.
The most exciting option is to take the Danish IC3 train where the train itself actually goes into a ferry to cross from Germany into Denmark.
As I was heading for Jutland I changed at Flensburg (just before the border), travelled on to Kolding, before taking a regional train to Ribe .
More details of connections through southern Jutland are here.
There are plenty of options, so check timetables carefully.
Trains on these services also serve Aarhus (European Capital of Culture 2017), Odense (birthplace of Hans Christian Andersen) and Legoland.
So, getting to Denmark by train is easy, can be very affordable and is probably a great deal quicker than you imagine. Like all long distance rail travel, it is way more environmentally friendly than flying. But for me, the raison d’être of travelling by train is that it is far more interesting, makes the journey an integral part of the holiday and is an ideal way to incorporate some city/regional stop-offs en route.
Before the tsunami of Brexisms, Remoaners and post-truths of the second half of 2016, the most beguiling, as well as over/ misused ‘new’ word of recent years had to be hygge.
New, of course, only in terms of the English language, where the word has become an integral part of the 21st century invasion of all things Scandi. And, although, apparently originally imported from Norway, hygge is now is as indelibly Danish as smorrebrod and minimalist design.
But while grisly crimies and woolly jumpers transcend language barriers (with a little help from sub-titles), the unique and unpronounceable hygge has become something of an enigma: depending on your reading and shopping habits, you may well not be able to avoid it, but can anyone actually define it?
Candles, cosy nights knitting socks around a blazing fire sipping mugs of glogg take us so far, but with hygge being interpreted as everything from a state of mind to the ultimate manifestation of Danish happiness, equality and good welfare provision, is it more than a sum of its parts, or just another trendy Scandi import insulating remoaning Guardianistas from the chill wind of Brexit?
A kind invitation to spend Christmas with friends in southern Jutland seemed the ideal way to find out, not least because I would be experiencing Julehygge: hygge with bells on, in almost every respect. Furthermore, with my Danish/British hosts annually enjoying a traditional Danish celebration on the 24th, a day of rest on the 25th, before welcoming an extended family gathering for a typical British Christmas dinner on the 26th, what wouldn’t be to like?
Copenhagen’s Central Station on the Friday before Christmas resembled febrile chaos, but with an helpful additive routinely absent from its counterparts in today’s British rail terminals: visible, knowledgeable staff eager to help passengers find the right platform and aid the more confused in and out of trains. Although I have experienced some delays and disruption on Danish Railways (DSB) in the past, this journey, with spacious seating, a ‘Quiet’ compartment with no audible mobile phones, and fellow passengers willingly vacating their seats to the people who reserved them, might well qualify as train hygge.
First impressions confirmed that Denmark, like much of northern Europe, tends to make the most of its midwinter, with small-scale Christmas markets, traditionally-dressed trees and minimalist outdoor lighting evident in most towns and villages.
Again, as elsewhere on the continent, festivities centre on December 24th and provide a more simple and time-honoured contrast with what is now the norm in the UK. Celebrations begin with family attendance at church and, yet again, I was fortunate that my friends live in Ribe, Denmark’s oldest town. Generally regarded as the best-preserved medieval town in the country, and famously chronicled by, arguably its most famous son, the photographer Jacob Riis, Ribe’s centrepiece is its magnificent cathedral, the Domkirke. The first Christian church in Denmark, founded in the ninth century, the present building dates from 1150. Extensively renovated in the 19th century, it remains a striking landmark clearly visible across Jutland’s flat, and often bleak, landscape, as well as a worthy monument to the town’s importance in Viking times and the early Middle Ages.
The evening then provides the high point of Yuletide celebrations and a clear example of the continuing importance of tradition and family in Danish society. A deliciously tasty Christmas Eve dinner – slow-cooked duck, caramelised potatoes and red cabbage, followed by cold rice pudding, with the latter containing the obligatory hidden almond – was prepared by my host to a recipe handed down from previous generations of his family, before we gathered round the candlelit tree to sing a selection of favourite Christmas songs. Only then was it time to open presents and this too followed a well-established pattern, with the person receiving the most recent present then handing out the next.
Family and friends together, taking pleasure in giving and receiving small, practical gifts (most of the presents were thoughtful, understated items, such as carefully chosen clothes, and yes, did include the obligatory knitted socks and gloves!) candles, a blazing fire, slow-cooked simple food and drink; surely this has to be hygge?
Although, rather than trying to find a situation to fit a definition, I am happier with my memory of people at ease with themselves, celebrating modestly and unaffectedly in a way that seems to have changed little over generations.
Certainly, having a day of rest on the 25th was a novel and rewarding experience for me and perhaps the contrast with the commercialised excess that now increasingly defines Christmas in the UK is the best way to sum up Julehygge. I was struck, particularly, by the pride taken in continuing long-held customs and the lack of any desire to modernise or ‘improve’ the experience by importing bits and pieces from elsewhere. Indeed, while my hosts’ extended family thoroughly enjoyed their British Christmas dinner on the 26th, they appeared slightly bemused as to why we Brits seem to have been keen to absorb so many ‘foreign’ Yuletide habits, from turkey to cranberries, over the years.
However, this is not to suggest that the Danes are immune to enjoying some of the our better Christmas institutions . Pantomime is not generally a staple of their Yuletide, but in recent years, London Toast under the direction of ex-pat (or should that be British immigrant?) Vivienne McKee has successfully introduced the genre to Danish audiences. Now one of the most successful English theatre groups in Europe, its Crazy Christmas Cabarets play to sell-out audiences and I was lucky enough to catch their last Copenhagen performance of the season. Loosely based on Robin Hood and featuring Sheriff Trump of Nottingham, it was topical and edgy and, in these crazy times, very agreeable to be part of a European audience laughing with us Brits, as opposed to at us.
So, with the holiday over and Twelfth Night past, did I find the key to understanding hygge? Is it a state of mind, or merely a clever marking ploy? A model for our time, or just a trendy, foreign fad? Is it possible, or even desirable, to define? Maybe both hygge’s strength and weakness lie in its very ambiguity: all things to all people, perhaps, or even just whatever you want it to be.
And, it’s certainly not just about getting through the winter with some cosy, candle-lit nights round the fire. Even in late December many people were out and about, round the lakes, in the woods, walking, cycling, and even swimming, making the most of what little daylight there was. But what made these scenes particularly Danish were the picnic hampers and ubiquitous coffee flasks: yes, even in the depths of winter hygge was alive and kicking: friends and families getting together round the campfire in the middle of the forest, or edge of the lake, eating, drinking, chatting.
Already hijacked by the populist right in Denmark as representing true ‘Danish’ values, in clear contrast to the ideal of hygge as an expression of Danish liberalism, inclusion and equality, it could well become a word singularly appropriate for our polarised age. Fifty shades of hygge anyone?
Christmas morning, Ribe
Read more about southern Jutland including how to travel there by train, where to go and what to see,
Battered by North Sea squalls and any left-over weather from the UK, the wild west coast of southern Jutland is not immediately recognisable as one of Denmark’s main tourist attractions, certainly as far as British visitors are concerned.
All the more reason to go then, particularly as Jutland, the only part of Danish territory connected to the mainland, is easily accessible by rail, thereby providing the ideal excuse for a train journey through Germany, with city stop-offs in Cologne and Hamburg.
In truth, the decision to visit Jutland had been a no-brainer for the previous six months, since I met up with my best friend from schooldays who has lived there since her marriage to a Jutlander. We lost touch after leaving university but, thanks to the glories of the internet, seamlessly took up much as we left off too many years previously.
Until then my knowledge of the region began and ended with the Schleswig-Holstein question and the defeat of the Danes by the Prussian army in 1864; the first step to the unification of Germany by 1870. My initial awakening to the attractions of the region only emerged with a gift from my friend of a book by the famous journalist/photographer, Jacob Riis. Although best known for his exposure of slum conditions in New York in the late 19th century, Riis was born in Ribe, the main centre in southern Jutland. Ribe is also where my friend and her family live.
Fortuitously, Ribe is the oldest town in Denmark and the best-preserved medieval settlement in the country. Founded in Viking times, its river access to the sea made it the most important trading centre between the Frankish empire and the Scandinavian states to the north. The town’s hegemony lasted until the end of the 16th century when the combination of a devastating fire, the silting up of the harbour and the relocation of the royal family to Copenhagen, resulted in a steep decline in Ribe’s fortunes.
But medieval misfortune has become 21st century advantage. Because there was little subsequent investment in Ribe, there was almost no rebuilding and it remained virtually unscathed by industrialisation. As early as 1899 a conservation organisation was established and today the old town appears practically untouched since its medieval heyday: a honeypot of cobbled streets and half timbered houses.
Designated a preservation zone, the centre is blissfully devoid of chain stores and franchises, so the shops and cafes retain a considerable degree of individuality and character. And, as this is Denmark, there are knitting shops (much fewer, sadly, in recent years) with wooden shelves stacked with yarn, needles and patterns, noticeably reminiscent of a 1960s British high street.
Bicycles, the ubiquitous Danish sit-up-and-begs clatter over the cobbles, their baskets piled with everything from delicious pastries, to dogs, babies and almost every type of household implement. Their riders are every bit as eclectic in age and dress code; clad for the weather and everyday activities with no need to be uber-visible in gaudy lycra and flashing lights. Even in a small rural town there are cycle lanes and traffic etiquette based on equality of all road users. Nirvana indeed.
Towering over the town is Ribe Cathedral, the Domkirke. A church, generally accepted as being the first Christian place of worship in Denmark, was first established here in the ninth century and became a major staging post for pilgrims travelling to Rome. The present cathedral, with its distinctive Romanesque architecture, was built from around 1150 and is visible across the pancake-flat water meadows for miles around. Climb the 248 steps of the tower and it’s clear why it used to double as a look-out tower for flooding.
The landscape, a smorgasbord of heathland, drainage ditches and a few brave trees, is so uniformly flat it looks to have been signed off by spirit level. The huge surround skies envelop the horizon and can transform from brilliant blue to gunmetal grey in minutes as storms roar in from the North Sea. It’s bleak and barren, but with a stark, brutal kind of beauty that also is a inescapable reminder of the raw power of nature.
Approximately on the latitude of Newcastle-on-Tyne, southern Jutland tends to share the same kind of temperatures, but when the sun does shine in mid summer the nearby coast is a magnet for visitors, particularly from Germany. The shared history and geography of this area ensures there is a common culture and German is still spoken in places.
Endless stretches of sandy beaches are ideal for bracing coastal walks when the weather is not so kind and also as a haven for birds. The Wadden Sea, one of Denmark’s five national parks, stretches from just west of Esbjerg (around 30km north of Ribe) south to the German border and provides ideal conditions for millions of migratory birds.
Within the park are the islands of Fano and Mando, both easily accessible from the mainland – the latter by a tractor bus or by bike, along a 10km causeway and adjacent cycle path. The islands are popular as summer retreats, both for their sandy beaches and their cute, historic charm, with thatched cottages, original lighthouses and interesting churches containing images of boats and other links to the sea.
Overlooked and undiscovered (certainly as far as British tourists are concerned) southern Jutland tends to be somewhere merely en route north to Legoland, or on to Copenhagen. But its water meadows and peat lands contain much history – Tollund Man, remember, lies not too far away in Silkeborg and the Battle of Jutland was fought off the shores of the nearby North Sea in 1916 – ancient and modern. Its settlements and people retain an authentic individuality, increasingly scarce in our rapidly homogenised world, and a unique fusion of modest charm and Danish style.
Mid January already, but for the first time in 2014 it really does feel like the start of a new year. Today the sun is shining: yes, really, even to the extent of having to close the top floor curtains in order to see the iMac screen.
Hardly earth shattering news: certainly not comparable to the continuing depressing events seen on our screens every day. But up here, in the submerged north, a morning without any precipitation, let alone one also with a glimpse of the sun, is something to sing about.
Halloween marked the end of our delightful and unexpected Indian summer; subsequently, there has literally not been a day without rain. Temperatures well into the high teens and water falling from the sky in biblical proportions, combined with entire days of almost total darkness, gave late autumn and early winter an apocalyptic feel.
Christmas came and went with barely a hint of frost, let alone a flake of snow and New Year heralded the return of the deluge to levels previously reached at the beginning of December.
Living with a major river flowing past the sitting room window, the fear of flooding has been a constant anxiety. Fortunately, so far, and touch wood, although an angry, caramel-coloured tide has thundered past, at times widening the river to three times its usual size and submerging the banks and overhanging trees with frightening ease, the drainage system has worked and the water has not risen any higher than the lowest-lying parts of the cycle path. Fingers crossed, the short term forecast will prove accurate and the next couple of weeks will bring some drier, colder conditions.
On the positive side, a brief, dry window yesterday morning allowed for a a quick survey round the garden and brought the welcome evidence of buds on the magnolia and acer, plus a scattering of bulbs across the front flower bed: small, but unmistakeable, signs that spring is on the horizon. Sunset is now a full 45 minutes later than in mid December and the beginning of spring – in seasonal terms – is only 46 days away!
But if you have to endure a British (or, even worse, Scottish) winter, then make sure you’re in a city, especially one where the bright lights, busy shops and wide variety of culture are more than adequate compensation for wet pavements and cold bus stops. Having a wonderful film theatre on the doorstep and world-class musical venues four stops along the train line really does hit the spot.
The Armadillo added an extra slice of atmosphere to Jools Holland’s ever-excellent winter tour and Celtic Connections looks mouth watering. After that, the film festival will run through February and Aye Write will arrive soon after..
Glasgow has always been renowned for its culture and innovation. Let’s finish with perhaps the most appropriate tribute to the musician who defined my adolescence at the venue that illuminated my childhood.
Autumn, as regular followers will remember is usually my least favourite season of the year. But at the end of the first full month of autumn 2015 my characteristic inflexibility might just be beginning to crumble.
Up here, in the draughty north, following a summer where rain hammered from the sky in biblical proportions, we have barely seen a hint of evaporation since mid August. Indeed yesterday, I gratefully accepted the kind offer of a pneumatic pump from the neighbourhood builders to relieve the misery of my parched pot plants. Perfect weather indeed for the seismic sunflower luxuriating in the sunshine along the terrace.
What’s more, the temperature at the time, 3pm on the penultimate afternoon in September, reached the giddy heights of 25 degrees centigrade; easily the hottest I have enjoyed since sometime in July 2014 in Staffordshire. Today, it took till nearly 11am for the mist to dissipate, but by mid afternoon, in full sun, the thermometer again climbed easily into the mid 20s.
But it’s not just the unusual heat of a true Indian summer that has made September 2015 one to linger in the memory. While the rapid fall in night time temperatures has been a sharp reminder that it is actually almost October, the resulting mist enveloping the river at dawn has been truly magical. Each morning as the pink watercolour sky in the east reddens and deepens it has gradually burned off the haze to reveal another sumptuously still September day.
And nature’s sky show hasn’t finished with the ever-earlier end of daylight. The last few days have provided the amazing spectacle of the most monstrous moons. From ruby red to copper through to LED bright white, each night a lunar light has fired the dark sky with an eerie, mystical beauty.
I doubt I will ever really love the autumn in the same way I long for the vivid freshness of early spring, but this amazing September has at least made me appreciate that there can be beauty among the dying embers of summer.
Having spent the last couple of decades or so pedalling the winding lanes and country roads of Middle England, relocation to urban Glasgow was always going to be a radical change. So, four months along the line, how does cycling in rural Staffordshire compare with negotiating the potholes and road diversions in the UK’s fourth largest city?
In many respects things, particularly hazards, obstacles and attitudes are remarkably, and depressingly, very similar. While the former Second City of the Empire now lags behind Leeds as the UK’s fourth largest city, it certainly must be in contention as the world’s Capital of Potholes. However, although dangerous holes in the road may be more numerous in Glasgow, they also lie in wait for the unsuspecting cyclist in the countryside – often for years as no one reports them, no one repairs them, or because they are located in places that don’t exist, according to satnavs – widened and deepened by the constant trundling of farm vehicles until the roads resemble open cast coal mines.
While the city’s ‘cycle only boxes’ are routinely exploited by many motorists, even on the showcase A728 on its way past Celtic Park, the Emirates Arena and Police Scotland HQ, priority boxes would immediately become objects of wonder, and derision, should they ever appear in a county town and cycle lanes, in the few places they do exist, are habitually regarded as extra parking spaces.
Indeed, the highlight of my final week living in Lichfield was a confrontation with a very large and aggressive Ukip supporter (it was during the final week of the election campaign) who laughed as I tried to pass round his car without getting wiped out by a steady stream of fast traffic, threatened me when I photographed his offending vehicle and warned me about cycling in the future as he ‘wouldn’t want something horrible to happen to me’. Apparently, he also failed to ingratiate himself with the police officer who cautioned him after I reported the incident.
Above all, although Jeremy Clarkson and pals are generally regarded as poster boys for that persecuted and threatened species, middle-aged, middle-class, Middle England man, their misplaced sense of entitlement about the right to park where they want, to drive how and at what speed they want, sadly seems as prevalent among some road users, irrespective of age, class and gender, in urban central Scotland as it does among the Chipping Norton set.
But, overall, my decision to swap the leafy lanes of the Trent Valley for the edgier banks of the Clyde has, overwhelmingly, been to positive effect, especially as far as cycling is concerned. Whereas trying to travel by bike in and around a car centric, rural village, involved the meticulous planning of a couple of 20-30 mile rides each week, timed to perfection around farming activity, the bus timetable and avoiding, at all costs, the school run, here I cycle every day; in and out of town, to and from the shops, along the tree-lined, cycle-friendly London Road to the excellent libraries in Bridgeton, into Lanarkshire, along to Balloch: and that’s only on NCN 75; so far I haven’t had enough time to venture further afield.
Selecting a new home that fronts on to a cycle path has, so far, resulted in a diverse range of benefits, including losing half a stone, finding resourceful ways of transporting everything from two full sized duvets, to a collection of house plants by bike, and seeing more wildlife – that’s foxes, herons, deer, not just the human residents – than I did in years in the countryside.
What I miss: days when I could go out for a ride without having to pack rain gear.
What I don’t miss: women (apologies to my fellow females), coffee in one hand, phone in the other, spearing their 4x4s through the school run, oblivious to the existence of all other road users. I’m sure they must exist in the city but, so far, I haven’t come across any in Dalmarnock
So, half a year has passed since Boot and Bike last blogged. This morning I cycled in a pleasant 20 degrees, under a soft blue sky, peppered by puffy white clouds and, whilst January’s post appropriately eulogised about the snow, seasonal meteorological milestones are far from the only changes in a rather eventful six months.
Winter to summer; south to north; rural to urban; Trent to Clyde; level to hilly: a list of almost polar opposites. Throw in some other seismic events, such as a landmark (for ominous reasons) general election and it’s been quite a turnaround.
So having swapped the safe and leafy lanes of the Trent Valley for the edgier banks of the lower Clyde (inadvertently, I’ve always found myself within striking distance of some of our great rivers, now I’m literally in touching distance) and with a couple of months of housesitting, a further two confined to a camp bed until the furniture arrived, plus six week’s of marking thrown in for good measure, what’s the verdict so far?
Wonderful! Although deliveries, deadlines and essential domestic installations have restricted possible outings, having a cycle path outside the front window was always a large part of the deal and, so far, it certainly hasn’t disappointed.
15 minutes into town one way, 10 minutes into the countryside the other, all level, traffic-free, bordered by the vibrant shades of midsummer wild flowers, with rabbits, foxes, herons and even the odd deer for company; absolute bliss.
The Dear Green Place doesn’t usually feature on the lists of the most cycle-friendly cities and there is still a long way to go, but armed with a cycle-specific satnav and a good waterproof jacket (my priority clothing purchase), it is perfectly possible to get from A to B using traffic-free, or less busy roads, enjoying a different perspective on the city into the bargain.
Being appointed a paper girl by the Glasgow Women’s Library has not only been my most creditable achievement so far – narrowly beating my growing expertise at flat-pack assembly – but has also provided the ideal excuse to navigate my way around the streets delivering their publications and sampling some decent coffee en route: indeed, I can feel a “Best Coffee and Cake’ post coming on.
This morning’s jaunt round the cosmopolitan bars and delis of Shawlands was complemented by a sunny lunch in the exquisite Hidden Garden at the Tramway – spoilt only by a massive gull stealing the last quarter of my toast, before having the audacity to return to clear the plate it had knocked off the table!
Welcome to Glasgow, where even the gulls are gallus.
A perfect day to enjoy the wonderful Hidden Garden – just watch out for the gulls