No one who claims to have an interest in European history can fail to be fascinated by the story of Poland. Its strategic position at the crossroads of western and central Europe made it the repeated target of powerful, invading armies.Yet, Polish culture, traditions and identity were never subjugated and the spirit of its people never crushed.So, the centenary of the establishment of the Second Polish Republic at the end of World War One made 2018 as appropriate a time as any to visit.
As usual, I happily forewent the ordeal of an anonymous ‘low-cost’ flight and took the train instead. Glasgow to Krakow, via Dresden and Wroclaw was set to be one of my longest and most intriguing train journeys. I couldn’t wait.
After the Beast from the East transformed March into the early spring from Hell, our bipolar climate treated us to a late spring of dreams. And, on a benign, cloudless, mid May morning, as an infant sun gently asserted itself through a misty watercolour sky, I left the Victorian splendour of my second favourite station, Glasgow Central, for a ride down the West Coast mainline and an eagerly awaited day in London.
Blissfully, the sunkept company through the day and even the racket of the Euston Road seemed slightly less intrusive than usual. My timetable was tight and there was barely time to pick up a flat white at The Attendant before I arrived at my slot at the National Gallery, with only minutes to spare.
Excellent as the Monet and Architecture exhibition was, the highlight was outside, not inside, the gallery.The dazzling sun provided the perfect backdrop to the statue of the Lamassuon Trafalgar Square’s fourth plinth. The creative artistry of Michael Rakowitz’s 14 foot model of the mythical winged bull with a human face, made out of syrup tins, takes the breath away, but it is also a moving monument to the senseless destruction of more than 7,000 priceless objects from the National Museum of Iraq in 2015 by Isis militants.
4.30 next morning and the Gothic splendour of St Pancras was already visible as Icollected my luggage and headed across the road to my number one favourite station. Still sleepy, the extra for Standard Premier on Eurostar was well-spent, given the roomy seat and half decent breakfast (including drinkable coffee) included in the price. Bang on time, a leisurely stroll then took me through Brussels Midi to await the ICE for Frankfurt.
I’m not a train spotter and know nothing, technically, about locomotives, but the power and beauty of a state-of-the-art train as it pulls into a platform always induces a sense of excitement.A no-hassle embarkation, seat found, luggage fitted perfectly behind seat without the need to lift overhead, German dictionary out and a decent macchiato brought to my table within the first 10 minutes. What’s not to like?
But near Aachen we began to slow down and were soon running late – yes, an ICE! – to much consternation amongst the largely business-type passengers in the surrounding seats, who raised their heads from their MacBooks, pointing critically at their watches. We crawled along for the next half hour or so, with regular updates giving the reason (as far asI could understand) as engineering work; so familiar, indeed, that apart from the language, I almost feltI was back in the UK.
Fortunately, as we arrived around 30 minutes late and, as my next ICE to Leipzig started from Frankfurt and was already in situ and I had a 45 minute transfer window, there was no problem.However, unbelievably, this ICEalso started to slow down and, after an hour, it was obvious that I would miss the connection to Dresden.Again, DB’s staff were incredibly helpful, particularly the train manager who was translating instructions into English.In the event, we seemed to make up time over the last 20 minutes and, although slightly late, the regional service to Dresden was waiting– although the dash across the station concourse was not to be recommended.
Ironically, after looking forward to travelling across Germany by ICE, the highlight of the day was the little regional service to Dresden: roomy, with plenty of accessibleluggage space, comfortable, with refreshments served in situ and good air conditioning. It was a chilled end to what had been, at times, a stressful day.
After a couple of pleasant days in this stunning city, Dresden was to be my starting point for a journey further east; out of Saxony and into Poland.Previously, I had travelled across Central Europe to Vienna and Budapest, but that had been at night.Today, on a beautiful spring day, I left the Hauptbahnhof early afternoon, again on a small regional train. This time destined for Wroclaw.
It was a stopping train, timetabled to take several hours, but again, the comfort, spaceand visibility made the journey a pleasure. Gorlitz, favourite of Goethe, and regularly touted as the most beautiful city in Germany, took around an hour.It wasn’t possible to see anything of its famed Altstadt from the train, but its reputation and easy accessibility from Dresden definitely puts it on the tick list for the future.
As the train chugged through of western Poland, stopping at villages and what often seemed little more than road ends, it was clear how important this railway is, particularly for elderly passengers and also for studentstravelling to college and school. The UK’s train operating companies should also be forcibly made to examine and copy the commodious and ingenious bike storage that uses minimal space, but accommodates dozens of cycles.
The landscape itself was fascinating, seemingly little changed from a century ago.The line passed orchards, allotments and little farmsteads; all evidence of the continuing importance to this region of small scale agriculture and self-sufficiency, despite Poland’s modernising economy.
But uppermost in my mind was a feeling of privilege at the opportunity to journey across central Europe without boundaries or checkpoints; a freedom that died with the First World War and has only been re-opened to us since the fall of the Eastern Bloc and the expansion of the EU over the last two decades. And one that, tragically, looks likely to be closed to UK citizens after 2019.
Wroclaw, approximately half way between Dresden and Krakow, seemed the obvious stop off, en route.But this city of churches and myriadarchitectural styles is well worth a visit for more than its geographical location. Wroclaw’s eclectic and often bizarre mixture of public architecture can be glimpsed as soon as you leave the train: the original station building looks more like a medieval castle than a railway station.
Three days in Wroclaw (see Blog) were enough to whet the appetite, but not satisfy it, so I’ll be back.
Wroclaw to Krakow was my first experience of an exclusively Polish rail service.I had heard several horror stories regarding the apparent hell of taking the train in Poland, but preferred to keep an open mind and experience it for myself.
Wroclaw Glowny, although spacious with good facilities and information boards, did expose me for the first time to the particular method of platform numbering used in Poland. Platform 1, for example, will have two adjacent lines, numbered 2 and 3. Platform 4 will have adjacent lines, 5 and 6, and so on.It’s logical when you get used to it, but confusing when you are not expecting it.
I had plenty of time to acclimate to that, as well as to panic that I wasn’t in the right place, as the train was 30 minutes late. When it finally arrived, I gave thanks (not for the first time) for booking a first class seat, as the crush to board the train here was considerably less.The compartment was an old-style six seater, with minimal leg space, even for me, but cramped conditions were outweighed by the kindness and helpfulness of my fellow passengers . During my travels, I lost count of how many times people, some elderly, helped me with my luggage on and off trains andoverhead storage ledges.
Indeed, kindness is the main memory I take from my train travels in Poland.Both journeys between Wroclaw and Krakow were late and, although I had no idea whatsoever what the announcements said, there was always someone, eager to practise their English, who translated for me.
An insight into Polish culture is also near the top of the list. People shared food, offered to bring back coffee from the buffet, seemed genuinely interested in my visit to their country and were extremely generous with their information and advice.
A vital component of a long train journey is a sense of humour.Perhaps the most enjoyable leg of my journey was the return from Krakow to Wroclaw.I must have looked like a bewildered soul early that morning and was ‘adopted” by an amazing lady on her way to a spa holiday somewhere west of Wroclaw.In perfect English, she advised me not to bother about announcements or departure boards, as they were always inaccurate. She then ‘captured’ a wonderful young man, who she agreed to keep the train waiting for as he had forgotten to get a ticket, in return for him lifting our luggage off and on the train. Priceless!
Would I do it again?Absolutely. Two wonderful destinations in Poland, a country I had always wanted to visit; an excellent excuse to re-visit Dresden, a city I love; and one of my best-ever travel experiences across territories I had first become captivated with in my adolescent history lessons.Travelling through other countries by train gives an unique insight into people and cultures. One you certainly don’t get on Ryanair or Easyjet.
As a well-travelled relative is fond of saying: “One airport concourse is much the same as another, whatever continent you happen to be in.”It’s not the same on a train.
A glorious, late winter’s day provided the ideal excuse to venture over to the east coast for a mooch round Dundee: Britain’s ‘coolest little city’ (according to GQ magazine) and the UK’s first designated UNESCO City of Design.
Almost 40 years had elapsed since I last visited Dundee and, even then, in the midst of the devastating manufacturing decline of the early 1980s, it retained its vibrancy and creativity and was home to a thriving student community. Today, two of its famous Three Js – jam, jute – have virtually disappeared and, like all other publishers of print journalism, DC Thomson has reduced and restructured in the face of online media.
But, throughout its history, Dundee has been nothing if not innovative and, while once famous for Keiller’s marmalade and the Beano, it is now renowned as the creative centre of computer gaming.
The opening of the V & A Dundee, Scotland’s first museum of design, in September, is eagerly awaited, particularly as its first major exhibition – currently at the V&A in London – will showcase the speed and style of the great ocean liners that revolutionised travel in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and whose design and construction are irrevocably associated with Scotland.
But there’s more to Dundee than Grand Theft Auto and the new V & A. Dundee’s origins date from pre-history and its location at the mouth of the Tay estuary ensured its importance as a trading centre over the centuries.
The re-furbished McManus Galleries charts the city’s development throughout the ages. It also houses two paintings by Thomas Musgrave Day illustrating Grace Darling’s rescue of passengers from the wreck of the Forfarshire (built in Dundee) in 1838. The bravery of Grace and her father, setting out in their rowing boat into high seas and a Force 10, was one of my favourite childhood stories.
As befits a powerhouse of the Industrial Revolution, Dundee contains many impressive buildings from the 18th and 19th centuries. It has also benefitted from the bequests of several famous entrepreneurs and industrialists; such as the Caird Hall, named after its benefactor, the jute baron James Caird. One of Scotland’s premier concert venues, it has hosted the Beatles, Stones, Zeppelin, Sinatra, amongst many others.
Jute provided great wealth to a few in the city, but subjected many of Dundee’s population to dreadful and dangerous working conditions. These are vividly recreated at the excellent Verdant Museum, housed in an old jute works: another must-visit.
So, a nice little taster for a further visit later in the year. And, despite the bitterly cold east wind, no trip to Dundee is complete without a glimpse of the the Tay Rail Bridge The replacement for its ill-fated predecessor, the bridge is now 131 years old and still links Fife with Angus and Scotland’s north east.
But, despite the city’s many and varied cultural attractions, the piece de resistance of my day out in Dundee was the discovery of The Bach, a gem of a cafe/restaurant near the McManus Galleries. Not content with providing an imaginative and reasonably priced menu and serving up first class, locally roasted coffee from Sacred Grounds of Arbroath, it is also a proper dog cafe, welcoming each canine customer with a fleecy bed, bowl of water and small treat. Wonderful!
Finally, after a far-too-long 18 months, a European train trip; this time to link with a bike tour from Prague to Dresden. Given that both are cities I’ve long wanted to visit, could I arrange a rail odyssey to also include Berlin (another on my tick list), as well as a (fleeting) stop in one of my perennial favourites, Amsterdam?
The bike tour was booked last minute and the trip was the final one for the 2017 season so, essentially, the itinerary, including all travel links and accommodation had to be researched and booked over one weekend. In the event the tight deadline proved to be an advantage: definite decisions had to be made, quickly, with no time for my usual indecisive faffing about.
Train-wise, seat61.com as ever, guided me through everything and links to the excellent English language sections of Deutsche Bahn bahn.de (DB) and Czech Railways cd.cz (CZ) worked quickly and effectively. Lack of time did force me to resort to the internet for accommodation though, with one exception, the suggestions did prove to be comfortable and convenient; less so their irritating and unnecessary follow-up adverts.
I source tickets direct from the relevant rail operators. However, it is perfectly possible, and probably more convenient in some cases, to buy European tickets in one package from UK site Loco2 and the same discounts should still be available.
This is the second time I have used this method to reach the continent and there are several positives: it saves a journey to London (particularly if the fare is cheaper than the Caledonian Sleeper); living in central Scotland it is easy and pleasurable to travel to Newcastle along the scenic east coast from Edinburgh; the cabins are en suite and, given favourable weather, it’s a very relaxing way to begin/end your journey. And they sell the delicious milk/dark chocolate Dutch Droste pastilles.
However, there are several disadvantages; most notably ‘stealth’ costs. Remember, as a foot passenger you are unlikely to want to carry in food for the evening and next morning, so you have little option but to use the ship’s cafes and restaurants. These are expensive – eg, €21 for fish and chips plus a bottle of beer in the cafe – and not good value.
Pre-booking for the restaurant gains a 17% discount, but still costs £26 for buffet dinner and £11.50 for breakfast – a total of £75 per adult for food alone on a return journey. The cabins, while comfortable, are small and not well suited to sitting around in for several hours in the evening and public areas are restricted to bars and the cinema – again, at cost.
Bus transfers (another extra) do drop off at the main railway stations, (but check carefully the Amsterdam location, under ‘Ports’, as this changed suddenly this summer, with no clear notice from DFDS), and there are several decent breakfast options nearby in both cities, so if you can survive until around 11am, it’s best to delay eating until arrival.
Verdict: can be useful but, on balance, I prefer the Eurostar option, with some time in London. Do work out costs in detail, including hidden extras, as price will probably be the deciding factor.
Amsterdam – Berlin return:
By the time the ferry docks and the bus drops off in the city, it’s almost 11am, so relieved I booked seats on the 13.00 service. Time to have breakfast/coffee/a glimpse of Amsterdam – there are plenty of options in and around the station as well as a large left luggage area.
It’s a six hour journey in a comfortable airline-style seat in a second class open compartment and a pleasant ride across the North German Plain – think final days of WW2 and all that. Indeed, the white steel road bridge you can see at Deventer was used as the famous bridge at Arnhem in the film ‘A Bridge Too Far’. Hanover and Wolfsburg also look interesting for future visits.
Arriving at the spectacular glass and steel Hauptbahnhof (Hbf), I am well impressed to find it is powered by solar energy. From the exit I can see the Reichstag and work out the Brandenburg Gate is only about 20 minutes walk, as is most of the city centre.
The Meininger Hotel is ideally situated just outside the main entrance to the station, on Ella Trebe Strasse, and reasonably priced. Really the next step up from a hostel, the foyer and downstairs area are usually packed with groups of young people. However, the rooms – if not the corridors – are soundproofed, it’s clean, the €6 breakfast is reasonable and the WiFi good. It’s not a luxurious stay, but it’s well located and ideal if you are planning a busy day or two in the city and just want somewhere to put your head down.
It’s raining and as I’m really only on a flying visit, I follow advice from a resident Berliner and buy a day ticket on the city’s transport system for €7. The 100 bus passes many places interest on its way to the zoo, from where I return on the S-Bahn back to the Hbf.
Next day I need to prioritise my sightseeing, so make a beeline for the Reichstag – only 10 minutes walk – and join the queue snaking around the portacabin across the road. I didn’t manage to book online but, fortunately there are a few spaces left this evening at 6pm. (Do remember to take your passport with you, as you will need it, both when you book and to clear security in the Reichstag.)
Norman Foster’s design is simply breathtaking, particularly in the way that light is reflected from different angles. Even on a dank and drizzly evening, the views from the top are superb and the audio guide really informative, both on the Reichstag itself, and on the history of the sites visible across the city panorama. Best of all, it’s free.
A sore throat and inclement weather dampened my Berlin experience a little, but I still managed to see something of the city and soak up (literally) some of the atmosphere. The tour of the Reichstag Dome was one of the highlights of the entire trip.
I’ll be back.
Next morning, up early for a four hour journey to Prague, looking forward to seeing some beautiful scenery, particularly between Dresden and Prague. However, although it’s a weekday in late September, the train is absolutely packed, even in first class, with people standing as far as Dresden.
Fortunately, my discounted first class seat comes with a reserved seat, but in a six-seater compartment: just about OK, but with very limited leg room, even for me.
The Royal Plaza Hotel (initially difficult to find because of building works round the museum and opera house) is central and within an easy stroll of both Wenceslas and Old Town Squares. Very pleasant staff, nice room, good WiFi and a bath, all help to provide an enjoyable welcome. So, dump bags, take to the streets where, even on a dullish midweek afternoon, it’s crowded.
First highlight is the Grand Hotel Evropa. Although still closed, its ornate art nouveau exterior stands out even among the crowds and colour of Wenceslas Square; the first of the many art nouveau treasures I want to see in Prague.
Heading down to Old Town Square the crowds thicken and it’s sad to see the reality of Prague’s recent metamorphosis into one of the stag/hen capitals of Europe. When visiting somewhere new I usually assess the extent of commercialisation by the quality of the fridge magnets in the souvenir shops. These are predictable junk. However, by chance I find a lovely Czech-made, all wool, jade beret down one of the side streets: my first and only buy of the day.
Disappointingly, the Astronomical Clock is swathed in scaffolding, but it is still operational and I enjoy trying to identify the four civic anxieties of the 15th century (Vanity, Death, Greed and Pagan Invasion) and then naming (and failing) the 12 Apostles as the clock chimes on the hour.
St Vitus Cathedral has always been at the top of my Prague wish list, but as this is now only possible with the Prague Castle tour ticket, I reluctantly decide against, given my time restrictions – and castles are not really my thing anyway. Charles Bridge, though does not disappoint, despite the drizzle. Once crossed and away from the crowds, there is much of interest along Mala Strana and Petrin Hill. Turning almost immediately right brought me to Shakespeare and Sons, probably Prague’s most famous bookshop. It’s certainly a place for a good read and linger, but conscious of time, I ration my visit and head along Cihelna to the Franz Kafka Museum. A Kafka fan since adolescence, it is an interesting experience and the shop is a cut above the usual museum/heritage offerings (interesting fridge magnets).
An amusing and quirky detour from here is to walk back to Malostranske Namesti and along Nerudova. Look carefully above the doors and you will see the best collection of house signs in Prague.
House numbering became obligatory in 1770 and these signs show some exotic and eclectic ways of identifying buildings before then. Watch out for the Three Fiddles, the Red Eagle and St Wenceslas on a Horse, among others.
On balance, the highlight of my Prague visit comes on the final day during the Kafka Walk. Living in Glasgow, we are spoiled by our city’s art nouveau treasures, but the Municipal House in Namesti Republiky compares favourably with anything in Mackintosh’s Glasgow, or Horta’s Brussels. Even a glimpse of the foyer and basement takes the breath away with the beauty and symbolism of the designs and decoration. Sign up for a guided tour, you won’t regret it.
Prague’s crowds are testament to the city’s charisma and attraction. They do clog up the honeyspots and cause irritation, but it’s easy to escape. The city is well served with parks and open spaces – climb Petrin Hill for some of the best views – and the contrasting Vinohrady and Zizkov districts, both easily within walking distance of the main station, are a world away from the tourist traps, with stunning art nouveau architecture, the (in)famous TV Tower, Kafka’s grave in the New Jewish Cemetery and lively bars and nightlife.
And, there is some decent coffee: TriCafe served up a solid flat white and a delicious strudel. Its comfortable, welcoming atmosphere, nice staff and location near Charles Bridge also tick the right boxes. EMA Expresso Bar produced the best coffee, but its too-cool-for-school atmosphere and know-it-all baristas will not be to everyone’s taste.
Next visit; some more craft outlets are definitely on the menu.
After two long train journeys and some city sightseeing, the wonderful Prague to Dresden cycle tour was just what I needed.
All too often the approaches into a city are not its best advert. Not so Dresden. Cycling into the city along the broad water meadows of the Elbe, past vineyards and Baroque chateaux has to be one of the finest entrances to any city anywhere, and a mouthwatering appetiser to the delights ahead. Arriving by bike after an en route stop at Pirna and the gardens at Pillnitz is even better.
After a convivial last evening with the cycling group, I throw my biking gear into the wash bag and go in search of my next hotel. The Intercity right next to the Hbf could not have been better: ideal location, excellent staff, free city travel card for the duration of the stay, pleasant, well equipped room and the right combination of efficiency and personal, but unobtrusive, service you look for in a good hotel.
Aiming to make the most of another gorgeous day, I head for Postplatz (in an unsuccessful hunt for good coffee) and cross the Augustusbrucke to Neustadt, giving the crowds in the Inner Alstadt a miss for today. Past the glistening Golden Reiter, I walk up Haupstrasse, a pedestrian boulevard lined with shady plane trees. Here are some of the best-preserved Baroque townhouses in Dresden and the side streets contain some interesting small shops and pavement cafes.
Before I leave Neustadt I walk along to the Pfunds Dairy on Bautzner Strasse. Described in the Guinness Book of Records as the ‘most beautiful dairy in the world’ the shop is over 100 years old and its walls are covered with richly-coloured, hand-painted tiles. It is undoubtedly a striking interior, but unfortunately now very commercialised, selling a range of rather expensive souvenirs: the fridge magnets are, though, a cut above the norm.
Normally I ration museum visits on a short trip, but there is simply no way I could come to Dresden and not see the Zwinger. The all-in, one day ticket for €10 is good value, although a combination of good weather and too much else to see meant I didn’t manage to get back to the Mathematisch Physikalischer in time.
First up is the Gemaldegalerie Alt Meister. This collection of European painting from the 15th to 18th centuries is simply breathtaking. It is small, but in many ways its size makes it ideal as you don’t feel lost, or frustrated that you cannot see everything, as is often the case in larger ‘national galleries’. Particular favourites include the Chocolate Girl and Canaletto’s impressions of Pirna, especially as we had visited its famous town square en route to Dresden on the cycle tour.
The Porcelain Collection is next and, although I was aware of Dresden’s associations with white Meissen porcelain, I had no idea of the extent of the city’s collection of specialised ceramics – generally regarded as the best in the world. August the Strong’s passion for ceramics resulted in an amazing collection of porcelain and stoneware, particularly from China and Japan. and the displays here certainly set them off to best effect.
A trip on the tram and a quick browse through Inner Alsadt is, I’m afraid, all I have time for. The Frauenkirche, Semperoper opera house, Residenzschloss and the little shops of the Kunsthofpassage, will be first on the list for my next visit.
i) everything travel-wise went like clockwork: message to self; perhaps booking at the last minute clears the mind and is the way to go in future
ii) the train journeys were all on time and generally relaxing, although very crowded at times. My idea of taking two bags of reasonable weight, rather than one heavy case, did ensure I could lift them on overhead racks, but they were difficult to transport when walking any distance
iii) the ferry is the weak link on this type of journey for the reasons above. The new Eurostar direct service to Amsterdam and the Caledonian Sleeper upgrade next year look to be better options and an overnight in London/Brussels/Amsterdam as economic as the ferry, given DFDS’s ‘hidden’ extras.
Ultimate highlight? a dead heat between the cycle tour, Dresden and the Reichstag Dome.
All in all, this was one of the best trips of recent years and an ideal rehearsal, all being well, for 2018’s planned piece de resistance; The Stuff Brexit, Grand Euro Tour.
It had been a while, and the combination of time, slight loss of confidence, some level of fitness, a major house move and a myriad of other everyday impediments had all conspired, in varying degrees, against the organisation, determination and initiative required to put together a bike tour holiday.
The days of plotting routes, throwing a change of clothes, some waterproofs and a couple of spare tubes into my Orliebs, locking the front door and cycling off somewhere scenic seemed a long way in the past. But still, the longing for that freedom, the opportunity to travel much further than possible on foot but still experience the immediacy of scenery, flora and fauna and culture in a close and flexible way still lingered.
And so, after a hectic weekend of coordinating onward and return travel, I signed up for the last place on Europe-Bike-Tours’ (EBT) final trip of the season from Prague to Dresden. Although very much a last minute decision and, even without too much scrutiny of the itinerary, this tour ticked all my boxes.
Prague and Dresden were two cities I had always wanted to visit; their Baroque splendour and influence throughout Central European history particular fascinations. In addition, they could easily be incorporated into my favourite type of European long-distance rail trip, providing the opportunity to stop off in Amsterdam and Berlin en route. And, with the clock rapidly ticking down to the removal of my treasured EU passport in 2019, it made sense to visit now, before the UK retreats into its self-imposed exile and travel restrictions are tightened.
Perhaps, most importantly, this was a guided tour; so, I wouldn’t get lost, I wouldn’t need to carry all my stuff, I wouldn’t have to struggle with oily fingers and five tyre levers if I got a puncture and I wouldn’t need to worry about where I could eat, or stay. What not to like?
Having booked through a specialist outdoor tour company in the UK, I had never heard of EBT and had no idea what to expect. I needn’t have worried – although I do have to admit to a first night of slight anxiety, having received the details for the self-guided tour and no indication when I would be collected in the morning, but it was resolved quickly next day, without mishap, other than a missed breakfast! – the hire bike fitted perfectly, the luggage transfers operated like clockwork, with the back-up van always in proximity, not just in case of mechanical breakdowns, but also as a very welcome provider of fruit, water and chocolate throughout the day.
But our guides, Lukas and Vitek, were undoubtedly the piece de resistance: multi-lingual experienced cyclists, well-informed, charming, endlessly patient and positive, both possessed a diverse and impressive skill-set that ensured the tour ran efficiently, safely and provided constant points of interest. But, equally importantly, their good humour, wide range of interests and engaging personalities enabled a diverse range of ages, nationalities and backgrounds to enjoy a very agreeable week off, as well as on, the bikes.
This tour linked two fascinating, vibrant cities with a route meandering along the Labe/Elbe, one of the great waterways of Europe, through some diverse and, at times spectacular, scenery.
But, although Prague, Dresden and the attractive border area of Czech/Saxon Switzerland, are established tourist areas, the start of the tour, to the north of Prague, passed through a region rarely visited by foreign tourists. One of the most interesting aspects of the trip was to wander around the small towns of Melnik, Litomerice and Decin, noting their impressive architecture and the changes that had taken place in recent years.
The Labe/Elbe has throughout history witnessed the constant migration of people and goods. Its strategic importance has also inevitably meant this region has suffered more from most in the turbulent history of Central Europe. The detour to Terezin, originally a Hapsburg fortress that became a Nazi holding camp for Jews en route to concentration camps during World War Two, provided perspective and a tragic and recent reminder; the many castles perched on the rocky outcrops high above the valley another legacy of the region’s tempestuous past.
The cycle route itself was to die for. Used to everyday cycling in one of Britain’s biggest cities, where dedicated bike lanes are few and often misused, where the holes in the road are as dangerous as the traffic and where you often feel every other road user is out to kill you, the long, flat, smooth, traffic-free stretches of tarmac path were heaven indeed.
As was the peace and serenity and the chance to glimpse a bird or squirrel and enjoy the subtle colours of early autumn. Berries and fruits were in abundance in the hedgerows, ripe and ready for jam/wine makers and birds alike.
Cyclists, like armies, depend on their stomachs and, on this tour, we were exceptionally well catered for. Both the lunch cafes and evening restaurants provided a range of local cuisine, and with meals in a chateau, brewery and the ride through two of the most renowned beer countries in the world, any thirst generated during the day was more than satisfied.
A few other personal highlights included: my room in the chateau, the ‘green’ ferry across the river, the walk up to Pravcicka Gate on the way to Bad Schandau, the market square in Pirna, beloved by Canaletto, and gaining my first glimpse of Dresden. the “Florence of the Elbe’, cycling along the banks and meadows of the river that has defined the city.
But above all, the trip reminded me why I love cycle touring, particularly this type of cycle touring, where everything else is taken care of and all I have to do is get on my bike and ride along excellent – preferably flat! – cycle paths to the next absorbing destination.
Many thanks to: Andy at Freedom Treks in Brighton who organised things in the UK; Vitek and Lukas for being such wonderful hosts and, finally, to all the other members of the group from various continents for being kind, supportive, interesting, great company and such fun.
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.
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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.
Having previously visited the most southerly and south westerly points of three of the four countries that make up the geographical feature that is the British Isles (better make sure I get this correct as there may well be some seismic changes to what is meant by Britain and the UK in constitutional terms over the next few weeks) it seemed sensible to exploit a promised window of fine weather before autumn encroached and venture to the furthest point of my one remaining unvisited peninsular; the Mull of Galloway.
Enticed back by the tranquility, contrasting landscapes and dark skies I discovered earlier in the summer and now bolstered by a bigger tent, more efficient cooking gear and a more ordered storage system, I left the heavy rain and leadens skies of a Midlands’ bank holiday morning to a-getting-better-the-further-north midday.
Usually a long, tedious, and sometimes dangerous journey from Dumfries west along the A75, the imminent end of the late summer bank holiday ensured the heavy traffic was in the opposite direction and Stranraer was reached in an unhurried and impressive two and a half hours.
80 miles from Dumfries and a similar distance from Glasgow, Stranraer can seem like a lonely last staging post on the edge of the choppy waters of the North Channel (even the local accents sound more Ulster than Scottish), but closer study of the buildings back from the harbour and the names of the streets, evince something of how the town grew in importance as a seaport to Ireland from the early years of the 19th century, after the 1801 Act of Union. But, its location in a rich pastoral agricultural area has been equally important and the town’s connections both with the sea and the dairying industry are well illustrated in the interesting local museum: a useful and informative diversion, should the weather turn inclement.
North Rhinns Camping lies around five miles north, in the midst of its eponymous peninsular, surrounded by undulating pastureland and, essentially, it provides everything I look for when I camp. Pitches are secluded, well away from neighbours, contain a picnic bench and campfire standing and are located sensitively around a patch of lovely, native woodland that also acts as a natural windbreak during the frequent squalls that descend on this exposed piece of land. Crucially, facilities are scrupulously clean and very well equipped. The site welcomes tents, with room for a couple of small campervans – as a result, another bonus is that it tends to attract some original and effective conversions of standard small vans.
While, in theory, the quiet local lanes should provide perfect cycling routes, few of the locals seem to cycle and neighbourhood drivers tend to hurl their trucks, tractors and 4x4s around with little thought for any other road users. Winds are often fierce and gradients will test the best maintained gears and brakes. That said, local businesses offer a warm welcome to cyclists, with plenty of helpful advice and tourist information offices are awash with leaflets and maps showing a selection of cycling routes.
Breezy, sunny days are, in any case, perfect for coastal walking and here the Rhinns of Galloway comes into its own. Portpatrick lies a few miles south of the campsite and its pretty harbour marks the western end of the Southern Upland Way (SUW). The 200 plus miles of this coast-to-coast trail take in dramatic coastlines, bleak moorland and challenging hills on the route across the southern Scotland and the first three miles or so, up to Portavaddie Lighthouse, is a great introduction, both to coastal walking, as well as the diversity of scenery on this toughest of long-distance walks.
Views take in the Antrim coast and further to the north, the jagged peaks of Arran, as well as the hump-like Ailsa Craig. However, after the SUW leaves the coast to head eastward, and although the route round the the west side of the coast is designated by the council as a core path, the going is often difficult over rocks and bracken, with no clearly defined trail.
Fortunately, the local rotary club has already taken matters into hand and, on the east side of the Rhinns, marked out a path along the side of Loch Ryan, linking Stranraer with the start of the Ayrshire Coastal Path at Glenapp. This, in turn, now joins up with another marked route, The Mull of Galloway Trail between Stranraer and the southerly tip of the Rhinns (and indeed of Scotland itself) at the Mull of Galloway.
The Mull, lonely and exposed, with its historic lighthouse and foghorn perched bravely above the treacherous rocks, is a fascinating place to take stock, look around and plot location – the outlines of the Isle of Man, Cumbrian and Ulster coasts are visible on clear days. But it is the sensation of being at the tip, surrounded by the dominant elements of sea and wind, that remains uppermost as you imagine the singular lifestyle of lighthouse staff as they performed their vital work before the days of high-tech communications.
Although not yet logged on OS maps, the route is clearly marked and, as it heads northwards, towards Drummore and Sandhead, passes along and above dramatic coves and inlets that are the equal of any found elsewhere along the western coasts of our isles. Along the way you are more likely to meet a few sheep or cattle than a fellow human: but remember, solitude does come with inherent dangers and this coastline can be bleak and exposed, with steep gradients and slippery rocks.
Inland, the shorn fields of pale yellow, with their stacks of harvested hay reflect the last days of August and the ripening hedgerows promise a bumper harvest of brambles and rosehips. Despite the bright sunny days and even at this far western outpost, evenings now darken and cool well before nine pm: another accurate barometer of the dying embers of summer.
So, Galloway 2014, the verdict:
Still characterised by its 1950s-style roads and telegraph poles, luxuriant rhododendrons and unspoilt coves and inlets that could recreate the setting for a Famous Five adventure.
Yes, it is being discovered, but slowly and, so far, in a largely positive way: the lonely moors, expansive forests and often deserted coasts now sit alongside something for the foodies (Castle Douglas), an annual literary extravaganza (Wigtown), as well as the legendary artist communities of Kirkcudbright and surrounding harbour towns.
Galloway has always offered fresh air, breathtaking scenery and dark skies; keep away from the caravan parks of the Southerness tip and you will still scarcely see a crowd, but you can find a good coffee, gourmet food and challenging culture, without too much effort.
Call it misplaced nostalgia, or cheesy emotion, but just wish, for a moment, that Beeching hadn’t axed the Dumfries to Stranraer railway line and the boat train (possibly with a steam special in the holidays) still wound its way westwards, along the coast, through the forests, over the Loch Ken and Stroan Viaducts…….. Just a thought, although a sad one, nevertheless.