Copenhagen, or Who Goes North in April?

Looking at our long and ever-growing list of places to visit, Copenhagen seemed like an easy win: it’s close to Amsterdam, everyone speaks English, there’s a lot to see, and the dining scene boasts more than a few darlings of the foodie world. We kept with our habit of planning long weekend trips to coincide with U.S. holidays, and booked for Easter weekend.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I didn’t expect that Copenhagen would be warm and sunny, or that we’d be biking blissfully around the city in t-shirts and shorts. I know that northern European countries have weather patterns all their own. We were prepared for rain and 10 degree weather. We were NOT prepared for 2 degrees. But there’s nothing a few layers can’t solve.  So, wearing almost every item of clothing I had packed, we set out to explore Copenhagen from our base in Vestboro.

(I have to start with a note about the bike situation. In my mind, Copenhagen was second only to Amsterdam in its cycling culture. I was shocked to see that the number of cyclists was nowhere near what we have in Amsterdam. Yes, the city is big, and yes, it was really cold, so maybe that impacted the tally. But there were just a handful of people traveling by bike. The lanes and infrastructure were quite good, but it just reinforced that when it comes to bikes, there is no place on earth I’ve seen that rivals Amsterdam.)

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St. Alban’s Church, next to the Kastellet

We arrived around lunchtime, so after checking in to our hotel, the first stop was Torvehallerne, a great food market with over 60 vendors offering everything from meats and cheeses to Danish smorrebrod and Spanish tapas. We found Ma Poule, a lovely little piece of France in the middle of Copenhagen, and had a good glass of wine and an amazing duck sandwich. It can be a challenge to find a seat inside the market, but we managed to grab a little table. On warmer days, (or for heartier people) there are picnic tables outside. It’s a great place to shop and graze and assemble your perfect lunch.

After walking around the Kastellet (and, yes, seeing the Little Mermaid, which, frankly, is over-rated), Friday afternoon brought the first of three attempts to get to the Vor Frelsers Kirke (Our Savior’s Church) in the Christianshavn neighborhood. I’ve mentioned before that I like to climb. Finding towers or churches that I can ascend is a standard part of my pre-travel research. When I read about this church and its helix spire with an external staircase, it jumped to the top of my must-do list. Unfortunately, the church hours and the tower hours are not the same. By the time we arrived, the tower was closed.

We woke up to a rainy and windy Saturday and headed to the cisterns in Frederiksberg. Until recently, the cisterns were a museum of modern glass art. Now it is an exhibit and event space; the current exhibit is by Japanese architect Hiroshi Sambuichi. Although the cisterns are a bit out of the way, they are a unique and lovely place to visit, and the park and Frederiksberg neighborhood would be good for a wander.

That afternoon we made another go at the church tower, with hours to spare before closing time, only to find that it was closed due to rain. Sigh.

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The view from the gallery

Easter Sunday dawned clear and dry, but cold. I was worried about the tower being open on Easter, but the helpful hotel staff called to confirm, and we were on our way, hoping the third time was the charm. We arrived to find that I was not the only person in Copenhagen waiting to climb this tower. A long line – one that didn’t seem to be moving much – stretched from the entrance door. I hesitated, but my dear husband insisted. It took about 40 minutes to get inside, but once I started climbing I was surprised by how un-crowded the stairs and the tower were.

The first 300 or so steps are inside the tower, and were a nice, easy climb (although I did hit my head on the way up. And again on the way down.) There is a viewing gallery at the base of the spire, and then a broad staircase that narrows as it winds its way, counter-clockwise, four times around the spire to the top. It was awesome. There is an

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On my way down…

iron guardrail at about shoulder height, and I thankfully do not suffer from any fear of heights. The views were incredible, and being able to climb outside just made me giddy.

The whole trip up and down took about 90 minutes, and (apart from bumping my head) it was easy and painless. And, of course, totally worth the climb.

You can’t go to Copenhagen without seeing or learning something about Danish design, so we set off to the Danish Design Museum and arrived in time for the daily free tour of the current exhibit, The Danish Chair. This 30-minute tour was given by an enthusiastic young woman who spoke near-perfect English. The tour gave a brief introduction to the principles of Danish design, and also helped me understand why and how something as simple as a chair could be so revolutionary. The exhibit itself is beautifully designed (of course), and displays more than 100 chairs in what they called the “chair tunnel”.

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Inside the chair tunnel.

It was also interesting to wander through the museum and see just how many everyday items, from lunchboxes to routers, are influenced by Danish design.

Add in some good meals, another stop at Ma Poule, a self-guided city walk, and a stroll along the harbor in Nyhavn, and you’ve got a weekend getaway in Copenhagen. I imagine that in the summer months the cyclists rule the city and the waterfront restaurants are filled with sun-basking tourists. We may have missed that Copenhagen, but even in the cold of April, we saw some lovely views.

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We get cookin’ in Madrid

Is it fair to let the weather color your impression of a city? We’re just back from our three day getaway in Madrid, and we had almost non-stop rain. We were prepared with good rain gear – we DO live in Amsterdam, after all – but it definitely dampened our spirits and our desire to explore the city in our usual, wandering, “let’s see where this street takes us” way.

Still, we couldn’t spend the whole weekend in the hotel. Thankfully Madrid has plenty of charming corner cafes where you can stop in for a plate of jamon and a glass of wine. Or a cup of thick hot chocolate and some churros, when “sweet” wins out over “savory”. And while it’s probably a terrible thing to admit, we didn’t go to the Prado Museum, or any art museum. What did we do, other than eat churros?

We did a quick tour through the Palacio Real, and saw the table where King Juan Carlos I signed his abdication papers, elevating his son, the current King Felipe VI, to head of state.

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Take the stairs at the Palacio de Cibeles

We visited the gorgeous Palacio de Cibeles, a former post office, now a cultural center with art exhibits and public reading spaces. (Tip: skip the elevator and take the elaborately tiled winding stairs.) We escaped the rain for a few hours by ducking in to the Naval Museum, where we saw the Mappa Mundi, a beautifully drawn map of the known world, created in 1500. Since most of the museum’s interpretive information was in Spanish, we missed out on some of the juicier details, especially about the map’s creator and his tragic end.  And even though it kept on raining, we took a slightly muddy stroll around Retiro Park and visited the Palacio de Cristal.

(An aside: For reasons I cannot explain, the Park was overrun by Mormon missionaries. We saw no fewer than 4 pair of them, and I swore to talk to the next team of Elders we encountered, mostly to find out why there were so many of them. Both in the Park, specifically, and in Madrid, more generally. And why they didn’t seem to speak any Spanish. Unfortunately, no more crossed our path and I’m left to live with more unanswered Mormon questions. So it goes.)

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You can’t see the Mormons but trust me, they’re there…

But the highlight of the trip came near the very end, on Saturday evening. In the past year or so, we’ve started looking for food tours when we travel. Food tours are a great way to find some hidden gems, learn about a city’s history and gastronomic culture, and get recommendations from a local guide. Our beer and currywurst tour in Berlin was great, and introduced us not only to the wonders of currywurst, but to some lovely new people. We were looking for another tour in Madrid when my dear husband suggested, instead, a cooking class.

If you know me, you’ll know I’m not much of a cook. I am a baker. Give me recipes and measuring cups and clear instructions and I’ll give you a delicious chocolate cake or the best florentine cookies you’ve ever had. But cooking? Too much approximation. A “pinch” of this? “Season to taste”? Whose taste? Cut the onion how?

But vacations are opportunities for adventure, right? And so we found ourselves in a bright, well-equipped kitchen with one other couple, turning out 5 traditional Spanish tapas dishes. (Four are below; not pictured: the crema catalan for dessert. Oh, and the sangria.) The instructions were clear, the recipes were relatively simple (even for me!), and everything was delicious. Especially the tortilla espanola, which is NOTHING like what most Americans think of when they hear “tortilla”. We left with full bellies, a copy of all of the recipes, and the seed of an idea for a Spanish-themed party.

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We made this! (Ok, well, half of it.)

Did we give Madrid a fair shake? Or did we let the rain and wind and cold get to us, so we failed to see the best of the city? Is it like the stranger you meet who could have been your soul mate, if not for the fact that you met at the podiatrist’s office, or at a funeral? Circumstances matter, environment matters – there’s no escaping that. So we gave Madrid our best, under the circumstances, and we’ll extend some generosity to Madrid, knowing that she wasn’t at her best. Maybe we’ll go back, maybe we’ll move on to another part of Spain, in the spring, when we’re sure the sun will be shining. Until then, we’ll be making sangria and cookin’ up some tapas.

Oh, Porto

The most recent of our near-monthly travel adventures was a four-day trip to Porto. Portugal is the Mother Land for my husband; his grandparents hail from the Azores, the gorgeous volcanic islands far off Portugal’s coast. We visited and enjoyed Lisbon and the Azores several years ago, but Porto had long called to me, with its promise of hillside towns along the Duoro, and its place as the home of port wine.

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After the rain…

As a holiday destination, Portugal always seems to take second place to Spain. That’s just fine with me, if it means that Portugal’s streets will remain uncrowded, the terraces inviting and the people friendly and helpful.

We were joined on this trip by friends from the U.S. Last year we met up with them in Italy, and when we suggested Portugal to them several months ago, they were more than happy to join us. (Their trip started in Lisbon and continued on after we returned to Amsterdam. And they were quick to tell us that Portugal had overtaken Spain on their list of favorite vacation spots.)

Our itinerary was loose and flexible. On most days our only plan was dinner, and the restaurants had been well-researched by our traveling companions. I’ll admit that when traveling with these friends I tend to take a back seat in planning. We’ve never had a bad meal with them (at least if they selected the restaurant), and their traveling habits include frequent breaks for coffee or a cocktail. It’s a needed balance to my tendency to overdo, over-schedule.

Our first full day in Porto dawned grey and rainy, with a spectacular thunderstorm that literally shook the windows in the hotel dining room. We had a lazy morning and finally headed into the city center when the skies cleared…or so we thought. No sooner had we started to explore then we were hit with a wind-swept rainstorm that turned ourimage umbrellas inside-out and soaked our sporty summer shoes. We ducked into a church to wait out the rain, and not 10 minutes later, we emerged to blue and sunny skies.

Our strategy for the rest of the day was to be sure we were never far from cover. “Cover” in this case generally meant an alcove, awning or tasting room where we could avoid the rain while drinking port wine. It was one of our better plans.

We started at Sandeman’s and seated ourselves outside but under the cover of the portico. Just in case. One whole page of the menu was devoted to port cocktails. Now, I know to some purists this might be a sacrilege.  But I was curious. And my curiosity was rewarded when I was presented with a beautiful port and whisky cocktail with a spiral of orange zest. Delicious. A perfect start to a day of port tasting. Next up was the well-known Taylor Fladgate, which had a lovely tasting room, a English-style rose garden (complete with a peacock family!), and a grassy terrace to enjoy our drinks. We tasted two types of port, complemented with almonds and chocolate. But we weren’t done yet…

Several steep hills and some wandering later, we came across Cockburn’s (pronounced, we quickly learned, as ” Co-burns”). We signed up for a tour, but to pass the forty minutes until the start time, we settled in to the comfy couches and shared two rounds of tastings and some cheese. The tour was ok, manageable mostly because we knew we had two more tasting flights waiting at the end. (For those of you keeping score, that’s three full drinks earlier in the day, plus another 12 glasses of port at Cockburn’s, shared among 4 of us.)

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The rooftop view downhill.

The smooth-talking tour guide may have also been monitoring our intake, as he was easily able to sell us on a 6-bottle assortment. It’s being shipped directly to Amsterdam and should be here next week. An excuse for another party, perhaps?

We eventually wrapped up the port adventure and headed back to the hotel to rest before dinner at the extraordinary, Michelin-star Pedro Lemos. (I feel a sequel coming on. “Porto 2: The Things We Ate”)

What I learned about port – and what I like about it – is its versatility. Port can be enjoyed with chocolate or cheese, paired with nuts or blended with whisky or other liquors. It’s a drink for a cold evening by the fire, or a not-yet spring day on a terrace overlooking a river. It’s an all-purpose pleaser. It’s wonderful on it’s own. And it makes the things you already like taste better and more complex. It’s a sipping wine, the enjoyment of which is not to be rushed. Port is for holidays, for vacation days, and for any days (every day?) you just want to slow down and be transported to a hillside town on the Duoro.

Finally: Berlin (part 2)

There are places in the world that grab you right away. Places where the beauty or energy, or maybe just the light, captures you from the start. Marseille tops my list. Paris. Amsterdam. Other places sneak up on you. Make you work a little harder, look a little more carefully.

For me, Berlin falls hard into this second category. I had built it up in my mind, based mostly on old images from news broadcasts and a lot of personal research and reading. And then I arrived there, armed with my imagination, and tried to make the imagined Berlin and the actual Berlin square with each other.

038Berlin is not charming. It is not quaint.  Traveling from the airport to our hotel by train, I began to grasp the size of the city.  When we started walking, this sense of scale was confirmed. Berlin is sprawling, urban, complex. The architecture varies between 18th century neo-Classical and the more austere, functional design of the Communist era.

It was difficult to orient myself to the layout of the city and, more so, to order my own priorities. Everything felt steeped in significance. Every building, every plaque, every bit of graffiti seemed meaningful. It was like walking through a riddle, unable to crack the code needed to have it all make sense.

The obvious thing to do while I puzzled out Berlin was to have lunch, and drink some German beer. Most of our first day in the city was spent eating, or walking in search of the next snack, the next beer garden. There are worse ways to orient oneself to a place.

The next day, after a failed attempt to have a good German frühstück, we started out to see some of the remnants of the Berlin Wall. Our first stop was the East Side GalleryEast Side Gallery Berlin construction, a 1.3 kilometer stretch of the Wall with murals painted by dozens of artists, first in 1990, with several restorations done since. It sits oddly juxtaposed with a new luxury  apartment tower. Construction cranes and ads for Turkish Airlines provide a somewhat surreal backdrop, and tourists take selfies in front of the graffiti-covered back side of the Wall.

Next we went to the Berlin Wall Memorial, which was, in a word, excellent. The majority of the memorial is located outside, on a 1.4 kilometer stretch of Bernauer Strasse. In 1961, what became the Berlin Wall began as a barrier of barbed wire running down Bernauer Strasse, so low that residents could – and did – jump over it.

Berlin Wall Memorial

The historical and interpretative elements of the memorial are very powerful, and you understand immediately the effects that the Wall had, on families, on neighborhoods. Where the Wall once stood is now an installation of thousands of rebar-like markers. Nearby are the foundations of homes that were evacuated and later destroyed, as many served as escape routes to the West.

The continued “strengthening” of the Wall was necessary to prevent escapes. By the 1980s, the Wall was actually two walls, an inner and outer barrier, with a range of deterrents in the middle section, commonly known as the “death strip”.  The Memorial shares stories of those killed in this section as they attempted escape. And then, as if to highlight the incredible changes since the Wall opened in 1989, two little boys arrive with their parents and start playing soccer. In the shadow of the Berlin Wall. In what used to be the death strip.

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For the rest of our weekend in Berlin we balanced our somber experiences with relaxation and fun. We ate our way through the city on a “Beer and Currywurst Tour” led by Berlin Food Tours, sampling Berlin’s famous street food and enjoying beers at breweries and charming old neighborhood bars. The tour was excellent and our guide, Bastian, also showed us some street art and took us to the only known David Hasselhoff shrine in Berlin. The others on the tour – Australians, Brits, Brazilians, and an American couple on a round-the-world trip – were so much fun that we hung out with all of them again, some during the weekend and the Americans when they came through Amsterdam a few days later.

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At the Pug Pub for a pilsner.

A more traditional walking tour gave us a good overview of the history of Berlin and allowed us to see all the major sites. (While very informative, that tour would have benefited from a beer or two.) I could have easily spent another week in Berlin, exploring museums and  absorbing the history, and then enjoying the sun in a park or a beer garden.

This interplay between the past and the present is what made me fall for Berlin. The past is present – nothing of Berlin’s history is forgotten or white-washed. But Berlin is also very much living in the now. The city has an energy and an attitude that just captures you.

That might be the appeal of Berlin: the knowledge that what you see and feel now was created by Berlin’s people. In the aftermath of division, there came freedom and, ultimately, reunification. But in between those historical markers, there was unknown sacrifice, loss, struggle, joy, heroism. Those experiences created Berlin today. And the creation continues – no city, no society is ever done evolving. To witness that evolution, even for a few days, is to be inspired and encouraged about what is possible.

 

Finally: Berlin

Years ago, probably in the late 90s, I spent several weeks working my way through Peter Wyden’s incredible book, Wall: The Inside Story of Divided Berlin. At 762 pages, the hardcover edition made for difficult reading on my morning commute on the T. Still, I couldn’t put it down. Wyden’s writing and detailed knowledge of Berlin were compelling, but I was also captivated by the fact that what I was reading was so current, so vivid. Not even history, yet. Barely even past.

I remember watching the news reports from Berlin in 1989 when the Wall – suddenly, unbelievably – came down. My father had spent time in Berlin during his stint in the Army in the 1960s and his experience colored the otherwise dull history lessons that I had learned by then. I struggled to understand the geography – to say nothing of the geopolitics – of the whole arrangement.  West Berlin was inside East Germany? How could this tiny, isolated pocket of freedom survive inside a Communist country? Who would allow that? For an American child growing up near the end of the Cold War, it was another mystery in another unknowable country.

And yet. There we all were, watching on TV as the Germans helped each other to the top of the wall. Watching ordinary people armed with hammers and chisels, literally dancing in the streets, a city-wide celebration. It made such an impression on me, one that has stayed with me to this day.

On Thursday we leave for Berlin for a long weekend. In my mind, Berlin seems to carry memory, weight, nostalgia. There is no explanation for this, since I have never been there. Rationally, I know that the Berlin of my imagination ceased to exist 25 years ago, if not more. But I suspect that in a city so rich with history and so committed to modernity, there will be more to discover than I have imagined.

More to come, from Berlin. Finally.

London and back again

Last weekend we made our first trip of the new year…a long-overdue return to London! It had been more than 15 years since our last visit to London, which was, actually, the first trip my now-husband and I took together. After so many years, it was as if we were exploring the city for the first time.

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Warmed by the sunshine, chilled by the wind…

The focal point for this trip was the theatre. Although I don’t know that “Book of Mormon” qualifies as theatre in everyone’s estimation, it certainly does in ours. We’d wanted to see “Book of Mormon” for years but never managed it, not on our visits to New York nor when the show came to Boston. It took a move to Europe and a flight to the UK to finally get us there! And it was worth the wait – it is clever and well-written, and very, very funny. Capped off with a late Chinese dinner (no ambiance, but great food), it made for a wonderful first day back in London.

The only other thing I really wanted to do was make a visit to the Churchill War Rooms. I struggle sometimes with art museums, but I really love museums that give me a view into history. The War Rooms did not disappoint in that regard. The exhibits demonstrate the activity of the early days of the war, and the tension and fear of the Blitz. The space itself – narrow, windowless hallways, cramped bedrooms – brings it all to life.

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Wool wins wars! Scenes from the Map Room.

It is a fascinating place, made more so by the very human stories that filled the rooms for so long. And by the fact that, the day after V-E day, the lights were turned off – for the first time in 6 years – and the rooms were simply closed up, with everything left just as it was. Years later, sugar cubes left by RAF Officer John Heagerty were discovered, still in the envelope in which he hid them to prevent others from “borrowing” such a precious commodity.

The adjoining interactive exhibit about the life of Winston Churchill was also a joy for my nerdy little heart. If there was ever a man meant for a moment, it was Churchill. He was a singular person, fully aware of his role on the hinge of history. In his own words:

“I felt as if I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and this trial. I was sure I should not fail.”

Tremendous care, forethought, and commitment went into the creation of the Churchill War Rooms, and those who now have responsibility for the museum are carrying on in the same spirit.

So, thanks, London, for full and fulfilling weekend. To laugh, stroll, eat, learn, drink, (eat some more), and rediscover makes for a great return visit. Until next time…

 

 

Catching up

Catching up: that’s what this post – and this whole week – is about. We’ve been in the U.S. since last Tuesday. We’re a bit displaced in our own home, living out of suitcases and digging through boxes that we packed away months ago. We’ve had 60 degree weather and now, our first snow of the season (which is quickly turning into a slushy mess).  Our schedule has been full with holidays, and lunches and dinners with family and friends.  We still have a few days and a few more celebrations before we return to Amsterdam.

It has been wonderful to spend time with people we love and get caught up. Even with all of the available technologies for staying in touch, there’s no substitute for being present with people, face to face. For a long-overdue hug. For a slice of Dad’s famous cheesecake. For sharing a memory and a good laugh.

In the days before our visit to the U.S., we spent a weekend in Paris. To catch you up on that adventure, it was great. Since we’d been to Paris before, and since this trip was so short, we didn’t feel any pressure to see the sights or do anything in particular. Happily, Paris is perfectly willing to accommodate the desire to stroll and eat. And repeat.

I’m proud to say that I did stick to my resolution to speak French while in Paris. And for the most part, the French went along with me. Once, the concierge at the hotel switched into English but I just barreled along in French. No surrender!

The weekend in Paris helped put me in the holiday mood – the city was alight and festive, even though it was unseasonably warm. We didn’t put up a Christmas tree in Amsterdam and we don’t have a tree here in Boston, either. I didn’t do my usual shopping or cookie-baking – many of the markers of the holiday were missing this year. But the spirit in Paris was contagious and made it, finally, feel like Christmas.

And so here we are, on the brink of another new year. The time has gone by so quickly – the year itself and this short stay in the U.S. With any luck, I’ll use the flight home to do some more reflection on all that’s been and all that’s to come in the new year.

To all of you, a happy and healthy new year. May 2016 bring you the best of all things…