Denmark, Italy, Spain
[Sorry, no PICTURES accompany this yet. That will have to wait until I scan them in possibly in the summer of 2010. Starting in 2004 I would have a digital camera and life would be immeasurably easier in this regard.]
This trip had been brewing for a good while - I hadn't been to Europe since I left it behind in 1988. Then, I had been living there full- or part-time for something on six years. It was time to head back.
Why Denmark? Good question. (I usually prefer to say *burp* "Why not?" in such repartée in homage to John Belushi in Animal House, but I spare you this time. Not next.)
An answer: I had made a couple of interesting friends the year before in Venezuela, those specifically being Christian and Dortha from Denmark. So there it was. That, and the fact that I'd never been to Denmark before. "Of course!" I nodded to myself. But there was a further reason as a sweetener: SAS (Scandanavian Airlines, from Denmark) had recently begun direct flights from Seattle to Copenhagen. Apparently at least one or two gods - probably Odin and Thor, Denmark being Vikingland and all - were on my side.
Figuring Europe is virtually always crowded and expensive in the summer, I decided that spring would be a good time to roust about in Denmark. How clever of me. I'd shoot for the latter end of it, not being that brave weatherwise while in such of a compromise with my first observation. Unsurprisingly, it wasn't long before I was on a plane descending over the green pastoral wonderland that Hamlet called home. From above it looked like one big verdant carpet below, bucolically dotted with windmills (~30% of Denmark's energy). We soon were dropping down and, ready or not, here I...
Hello, Copenhagen! As an obvious first Danish stop, and the best known thing about Denmark beyond the Little Mermaid, it was a no-brainer that I'd first spend a few days walking about this storied town to get things rolling. I soon found myself staying in one of the floppier of flophouses in (or by, as I would walk through it) the famous red light district. Not that that was my game plan, but neither was this of any great perturbance: as far as I was concerned, my hostel would be an acceptable place to crash for 20 euros or so ($25) without having to share needles. Done. I was very mindful of the fact that Denmark is/was/forever shall be (like all of Scandanavia) EX. PEN. SIVE.
But walking is free. So I did my patented favorite tourist activity of strolling about, all in the vicinity of downtown Copenhagen. A museum of Danish design was interesting, if under the detouring tactic of remodelling; likewise appealing was the bulk of the older architecture around town. It's good not to be bombed during world wars, I observed: Copenhagen (or, to contrast, Dresden for that matter) is proof. Tivoli, an inescapable attraction in addition to being the first amusement park or somesuch, didn't prove a good enough draw to keep me for any time, but the rest of the lay of the land found me content to stroll, stroll, stroll. I strolled, I guess is what I'm trying to say.
Christiana, the hippie/drug culture enclave of Copenhagen that had formerly been a military base, piqued my interest, too. Making my way over to its canalside setting, I instantly realized upon arrival that if the mood struck me, I could have done quite well on Pusher Street shopping idly away for hashish and pot. But such a mood didn't grab me, as it rarely does I should note. Similarly this makes such tourist destinations as Amsterdam not rank high on my list of drawing power, either.
Instead I happily settled for plebian beers and checking out the various workshops in the tumbledown 'hood, walking the alleys and taking in the visible side to the commune's vibe. Free love and no taxes formed the flavor of the community, but I liked the do-it-yourself attitude even more. Besides, one has to keep the "independence" of such a place in check with a dose of reality: it existed only by the tolerant will of the greater city. Squatting, raising almost no income, and growing little crop (of sustenance!) means that survival comes from elsewhere.
A museum north of town, oddly named Louisiana, was an excellent diversion to check out some modern art in an unexpected setting. Or at least that seemed an acceptable excuse to put my butt on a train (which is a very sleek and modern thing in Denmark, although it would behoove me to learn to lock the bathroom door when taking a whiz - imagine away...). Zipping along the coast of the sound (Oresund), it was only all of 1.5 hours later that I had the museum practically to myself. As good as advertised - the brochures had worked their magic on me, obviously - I enjoyed a fantastic photo exhibit by a photographer I am remiss in forgetting the name of. I also lovingly gandered at some architectural models by Renzo Piano in a retrospective of his lifetime works, and enjoyed a flowing outdoor sculpture garden nestled along the sound's water (which separates Zealand Island from Sweden).
However, these notable attractions aside, Copenhagen was never my real Danish destination but a mere entry point that I couldn't pass up exploring. So after a few afternoons of sipping beer on the docks of Norhaven under the sun, plus boatcruising and walking the canals of the city (where I passed by the repeatedly vandalized Little Mermaid statue in the Harbor), it was time to see a familiar face.
I was thus next off to Odense, on the next island (Funen) over from Zealand (on which Copenhagen sits). The third largest city of Denmark, Odense's claim to fame is primarily for being home to Hans Christian Anderson. And maybe hosting King Knud's grave - I dunno, I just liked the name! Kinda like my long lost Danish surname of Kjarhoff that disappeared with my Dad's adoption in the 1930s. For me, however, it was primarily notable for being the home of Christian and Dortha.
These two were more than busy enough at the moment, though, to host a silly American dropping in on them: they had just had a baby, Lukas. Still, over the next week or so, these graciously hospitable hosts and I had some fun together in between their caring for the young'un. In particular, we took in a hockey game (Denmark against some other country, Slovenia? - I forget, but a friend of my friends' friend played for Denmark), feasted on Easter Dinner and its many interesting courses (cheese course, pickled veggie course, meat course, seafood course, dessert course, etc), and took some drives in the greater Funen Island area (which I did along with Christian to check out some seashores, in addition to traditional architecture which included the ancient reed-thatched roof house). A party and some bar-hopping somehow figured in there as well, now hazy recollections of somewhat blurry events involving very tall and blonde people. Some might have sported horned helmets or belted out opera - once again, I'll never know. I can be as bad as I am good with details, perhaps particularly so when strong alcohol is involved.
One thing I quickly came to realize in Denmark is that there are a lot of good-looking people. And within my narrow field of vision at least, all seemed prosperous and healthy. Christian's working for Odense's social services assured me that there was a poorer side as well, though. Over the week or so in his company I heard a number of stories of public assistance that bordered on ridiculously generous. At least I think many in China or India might feel that. But in Denmark, services of such a nature actually rank as expected. As is usual in rich countries, no one is particularly cognizant of just how lucky they are and how easy they have it. It's all relative. I needn't mention observations as to the provenance of such wealth historically, either (since raiding Vikings were known less for trade than plunder).
All was well and good in the kingdom, regardless, all the while not taking me too long to realize that there's not much grit to the just-as-missing grime in Denmark. Greetings and visitations exchanged, I soon surpassed any expectations I had of this leg of the journey. Sure there's handsome centuries-old architicture, and a preponderance of wealthy people who speak English... but is this travel? (The answer is NO, if you need wonder.) After a week and a half of Scandanavian dreamland, in other words, I knew it was time to move on to my one known destination of the trip, Rome.
Rome, Oh Rome. Sounds like a song. Maybe it is. As for me, the city felt like it had always been musically inclined. And for a long time, too. This was in spite of the fact that I had only spent a smidgen of hours previously in the Eternal City, back in 1983. Wait a sec: didn't I graduate from high school then? Why yes, I did. That's OLD. But nowhere as old as Rome.
Yeah, Rome would bear worth revisiting. Back in '83 I had executed an insane month of travel of something like eleven countries. From an original six of us who were going to hit the road after graduation, it was only two of us who actually did so. And, two-and-a-half weeks into the game later, we found ourselves in Rome. Concurrently Rome, for its part, found us in pretty bad shape - we were exhausted.
We spent a day or so walking about town, taking in the most obvious of architectural wonders in the hyper style that had characterized our trip. Those were such places as the colitheon, the paniseum, circus augustus, and maybe there was a church called Peter's Place or something. Somehow along the dusty tracks that took us to each new destination we eventually overdosed in a monument-al way. Indeed, nearly three weeks of trains leading to Rome left the town of Romulus with the trivial task of breaking any final reserves we might have had. We were broken: enough! And quickly we left as harriedly as we had come.
We would spend the next week on a beach in Greece before making our return home to Germany. We were jelly, willing to live the enviable life of jellyfish, even if it was to merely decompose on a beach. But in breaking our camel's back, the straw of Rome had done a couple of positive things (beyond allowing us to bathe for the first time in five days - you've never seen black water until...). For one, it ended the panicked nonsense of the trip which saw us soon doing nothing more than dawdling within a short period of time as we ventured from one highlight to the next. This fortunately would leave Rome a relatively unexplored destination for the future, though - not a bad thing in itself. The second (and more important) offering was the lesson we received in recognizing what a stupid way of travel we had been effecting.
Now I was in Rome again, the town that has probably seen more tourists doing the tourist activity than anywhere else in the world. The population is more than rather used to it, one could say. And rather as quickly I felt that Rome was indeed for the Romans (a refreshing change compared to many heavily touristed cities): we interlopers would be tolerated and even entertained, yet we'd remain somewhat unimportant at the same time. They had places to go on their mopeds and tiny Smart cars, espressos to sip on, and gelatos to contemplate. If we had any brains, we'd do the same - and pronto. Perfect.
I found my requisite hostel within a couple of days of bouncing about poorer choices; I soon was ready to commit to many more (days, not hostels) - the vibe was set. Colors Hostel was located near the Vatican, an oasis of large rooms with only a handful of beds each - and no bunks! It was close to the grand river Tiber (on whose banks a certain Caesar met his end before Brutus would meet Popeye - or was that Bluto?). My chosen locale was very central to the city, yet on a quiet sidestreet. A cafe was just around the corner, and I soon discovered that the best jazz club in town (Alexanderplatz) was just a 10 minute walk away. Hooked like a lazy catfish in a mud wallow, I didn't make much of an effort to remove the barb from my lip. Which is an amazing thing for a trumpet player.
If I was to recount what I actually did of note in Rome - specifying specifically specific specifics - I would have a very difficult time. Which is odd considering that altogether I would spend a month in the charmed arms of the beast, loving every minute of it. I had no plans, likewise didn't execute any beyond stepping out of the front door, yet I felt I did so much. So much of the good that one finds in life occurs like this, no?
I found myself playing the trumpet in many parks, under bridges, at day, at night. I quickly made a friend in finding a fellow jazz enthusiast (and drummer) in the hostel, a Frenchman named Alexandre, to join me for forays to Alexanderplatz (jazz club) on numerous occasions. Coffee at 3am in the middle of a street at a kiosk didn't seem unreasonable - many others had the same idea! Sitting on a bridge and watching the world go by was a pleasurable and daily occurrence. Each day I would walk in a new direction, consistently surprised with new discoveries of architecture and history. And an unending lineup of undiscovered pizzas and piazzas, espressos, gelatos, wine and more seemed around every corner. Rome understands life, I concluded. My life, anyway.
I had a map, of course, yet no guide. I'd sometimes pick an item of interest on the map, often nothing more than just a spot to head to. I didn't care what I'd find, but I knew I'd find something. And I always did. There are so many points of interest in Rome, and I'm sure I experienced many of them at one point or another. Circus Maximus, The Coliseum, The Pantheon, The Vatican City, The Forum; the list is endless and well-documented. Yet I'm sure plenty remain that I missed, although I never would feel any regret in doing so. If anything, I could be thankful for an excuse to return one day. I am.
A couple of Brits not long out of uni(versity) joined Alexandre and I in camaraderie for a good portion of the month, as did a mostly European cast of characters for varying short terms of stay. Various cooking herbs grew in flowerpots on the hostel's kitchen windowsill, and a number of specialty food shops were nearby. Unsurprisingly, cuisine formed a communal meeting ground to be explored each evening. So many varied and interesting styles to enjoy! We did.
The staff, a collection of cute girls in their 20s from several countries (Sweden, Finland, and Brazil that I remember) worked the hostel in exchange for a free bed and a little cash. Their attitude and beauty added immeasurable charm, it bears noting. On a number of occasions I'd cajole one out for a coffee or a beer and a chat, not always a given with hostel staff that can sometimes be overworked or tired of dealing with picky or complaining travelers. This was a part of the sweet success of the stay: it's not often that a hostel comes to feel like a home as well as this one did. Just as true, it's not too many times that one stays in a hostel for a month, either. It worked, and well at that.
I managed to see a bit of the area as well, spending a long day (with Emma from the front desk) at Frascati, a town in the hills outside Rome that has been an escape for ages from the city's summer heat. The Appian Way's road, to another side of the city, provided a magical day with a girl (Francesca) I spent some time with from Alexanderplatz. We'd also go up the coast for a weekend with her family on a sailing regatta to the island of Elbe (of Napoleon fame, this first exile a little too close to home and leading to banishment to the remote island of Helena).
Francesca, the coat checker and ticket taker from the jazz club, was a moody and beautiful girl, Mediterranean and mercurially disposed to the core. In the brief spell in which we knew each other she would practice well the Italian art of making me feel unimportant and important in a matter of minutes on a recurring basis. I didn't doubt that I was in Italy on that score, nor was I ever sure if this was a good or bad thing. But it certainly was exciting. Such pursuits have a way of making the rest of the world disappear in a similarly unimportant manner as well. Such is a whirlwind, or such was the one called Francesca.
In an odd twist of consequence, the world beyond the Boot (Italy's shape) also tried to remind me of my former travels, too. My Argentine heartbreaker Guada(lupe), from a couple of trips to South America some years prior, reestablished contact with me via email from her new (married) home (Australia) at this oddly particular time... until I found out that she was in between happy points in her life that I couldn't resolve. Her passionate and inconclusive emails were intriguing to say the least. As it turned out, she was pregnant with a girl who she would give birth to in a short matter of months, coincidentally to be named Francesca. Hmmm... I soon realized that fates are not to be easily questioned (and the daughter wasn't mine, should one wonder), even if affairs of the heart make travel infinitely more pleasurable (as all will agree, no?).
Somehow a month passed. And then one day it hit me, I suppose: I had about three weeks of this trip remaining. Maybe I SHOULD move on, check out a new scene. I consulted a map, then consulted a train schedule. Then there it was, a handy handful of hours away: Cinque Terre, the Five Lands. More great food, coastline, and tiny villages to contrast with the big cities of Rome and Copenhagen. Sold.
Coincidentally, Alexandre wanted to get going back toward Paris as his time was drawing short, so fortunately I would have a travel companion as we made our way up the coast. Inexplicably we would choose different towns within Cinque Terre to start checking out the area, and without cell phones we'd lose track of each other quickly. Not all would be lost, though: we'd reestablish contact in Paris a year later. For the time being, however, I was back on my own.
Cinq Terre, Cinco Tierras, Five Lands. This was storybook tourism writ appropriately small. Frankly, I had only vaguely heard of the place before consulting someone's Italy guide at the hostel a few days before. I was looking for waterfront silliness in a vastly smaller locale than Rome to change things up. Cinque Terre filled the bill, if not the beach.
Yeah, there are some specks of beach to be had here and there in Cinque Terre, but that's not why people come. They come because the five towns are closed off to car traffic, only reached via hiking from one to the next on gorgeous hiking trails or from timely trains that connect them as well. You can buy passes to navigate your way either which way - I would choose both - so as to leave your options open. With a weekly pass quickly in hand, it'd be no surprise that I'd stay a week.
Riomaggiore, the southernmost, was where I would start. Over the week I'd make my way north one way (hiking) or the other (train) to Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso. Each had their own personality of sorts: Riomaggiore was the compact cliff town, Manarola its more winding and spread out brother, Corniglia commanded its hilltop, Vernazza had its harbor and accompanying piazza, and Monterosso had the greatest access to the outside and a beach scene. Not a bad mix.
I chose a hostel in Riomaggiore; Alexandre inexplicably chose Monterosso. As it turned out, communications between us at this dawn of the cell phone was our friendship's immediate undoing (or pause button). Fortunately, a cast of characters quickly assembled at the hostel.
A more cramped space couldn't be imagined, that's for sure. In our hostel-de-guerre we were stuffed into the most mangled of spaces, nestled near the bottom of the most spiderwebby of towns that stacked living spaces atop one another in a jumble that trickled down to the sea. We couldn't help but get to know each other. We did; that's what hostels are for, fortunately.
Not that the introductions would last beyond the moment; however - they rarely do in a hostel. But we nevertheless made meals together, chatted about the walks we took in every direction, and had newfound friends to make our way down to the tiny harbor at night to drink and swap stories with.
It turned out that I would make some longer-lasting friends after all. Debbie and Rob, from Sydney in Australia, would keep in contact with me. They were on a trip around the world for a year; later on they'd meet up with me again in Seattle. And some years later I would impose myself upon them all the way down under in Australia. You never know.
But the majority of my Terran holiday found me wandering about alone, occasionally bumping into these recent acquaintances or making new ones. In a piecemeal fashion, I eventually both walked the entire coastal and hillside tracks from Riomaggiore to Monterosso. One hugged the sea and cliffs; the other wended through a vast terraced maze of grapevines.
And the grapes weren't bad, either. The standouts for the area were their white wines, yet of equal acclaim were the residents' pestos, too. The latter would be served in a dollop which was plopped into plain wrapping paper. Adding some freshly made and cooked pasta, a simpler and tastier heat-n-serve meal couldn't be found. We all found it repeatedly so over the week.
Foccacia? Yes, that too. Wine-tasting and traditional Italian music? Yes, that at a party one evening in Cornilia under the stars of night - followed by a tipsy return two villages away to Riomaggiore. Even the beach made its way onto the agenda once I found the largest (and seemingly hidden) one by dropping off of the trail near the train tracks south of Corniglia.
I guess I could say that Cinque Terre was exactly what it was supposed and hoped and found to be. But, after a week of those hijinx, and with newfound friends moving on, once again I would be doing the same. I consulted my map again, poked around the internet for cheap flights in the new (sometimes free) dawn of RyanAir and... Barcelona it was!
That only after a long train ride to and then past Milan, however. Thia new age of cheap flights additionally meant that leaving Milan (or any big city) really meant leaving Bergamo (or a similarly-distanced small city) an hour away with its inconspicuous airport. Bergamo's airport was indeed so inconspicuous that I almost didn't get off the train at the correct stop, barely could find a taxi there, and was the last person allowed onboard with the gate literally closing behind me. But that's how it'd be for the moment: b-bye, Italy!
Barcelona & environs (Figueras, Puerto Lligat, Púbol)
And hello, Spain. I mean Barcelona! Or, rather, Girona. Yep, Girona. Like Bergamo to Milan, Girona would be my introduction to Barcelona. And this was at two hours away from the big 'un, not a mere hop-skip-jump of one hour. Oh well, that's what you get for a ticket that's nearly free: a one hour flight turns into a lengthy day. What a savings.
Fortunately, Girona was also near Figueras - the main reason I was interested in the Barcelona area, anyway. Not that Figueras is any great shakes. It ain't. But that's where Salvador Dalí's museum is, plus his house in Puerto Lligat and the castle he bought for his wife in Púbol aren't far away, either.
I've always been a big Dalí fan. Sure, he was a bombastic showman and something of a blowhard - but he DID back it up with some wondrous skill and imagery that landed him atop the surrealist world with Magritte and a handful of others. His legacy is deserved, frankly. I was long past sold, anyway.
My first largescale encounter with Dalí had been at his oddly-located museum in St. Petersburg, Florida (a legacy of wealthy New Yorker collectors to their wintering hometown). There I could eyeball his masterworks of some 15-20 feet in height from mere inches away. I was amazed: the detail was past telling, as if each hair of his paintbrush was specifically directed. They likely were. Wow.
Beyond Dalí, there's the mindfuck that is surrealism in the first place, too. The image within an image, the bending of reality. This has always appealed to me greatly, much as bebop offers its illusions while still staying rooted in a beat and structure. The avant garde of abstract art and free jazz has always left me cold, but surrealism and bebop captivate and never date.
Anywho, I delighted in spending several days in the greater Figueras area. A day at Dalí's self-designed museum, an exrtavaganza of his works in a variety of media, was everything I hoped it to be. His house likewise was clever, and lay in an intriguing bay setting. It was a structure that had originally housed multiple fishermen in its rooms before he took over the entire place. His redesign of the sprawling place was justified even if a handful fewer fish now made it to market.
The castle completed the trio, reached by a train ride and a bit of a hike outside the town of Púbol. The least of the three, it still merited a view. "Castle," it need be said, is actually a bit of a misnomer where "country estate" - and modest at that - would do. Still, its architecture was suggestive of a castle, I suppose. Hey, it was a gift to his wife and muse Gala - I'm sure it was the thought that counted.
In any event, each provided a surfeit of items that rendered them Dalíesque. My mission was accomplished, and there wasn't much else in the greater Figueras area that grabbed my interest to deem a longer stay worthy. On to Barcelona, finally.
Barcelona is, of course, world-reknowned. Dalí is nearby, yes, but it's Gaudi in particular that puts Barcelona on the map. It's the capital of Cataluna, too, where Catalan is spoken. No, it doesn't differ greatly from Spanish (also known as Castillian or Castellano), but it does have its own words including a predominance of the letter X. I could be understood and mostly understand my new acquaintances, so in that respect I was content.
I spent several days walking about the town, trying to find the random Gaudi architecture from which the term "gaudy" derives its meaning. The church, the park, the apartment building - these were the best known examples of his work. And they are appropriately outlandish and colorful. Like them or not, they certainly give the place personality that many other cities could consider (and be jealous of) in promoting their own artists on a larger scale.
Elsewhere, the artist scene could be considered by some to be on the avenue Ramblas. This is the big boulevard that heads to the Mediterranean shore from the city's interior, famous for its shops but moreso for its busker scene. And a scene it is, the scale of which I haven't seen approximated anywhere else.
There is a preponderance of colorful living statues that move and gyrate for a coin, for one thing. Their appeal lies in the amount of paint applied to the subject far more than anything they would do, however, yet there was the random one which broke from the norm and managed for a few more coins for the effort, too. Of these, one was a (stationary) man who had somehow managed to articulate all the effects of his get-up to look like he was caught in a wind. He duly minted his coin in his nearby hat.
Far more impressive to me, of course, were the musicians. A digeridoo duo with thumping beat was mesmerizing enough for me to buy their CD in support. A gypsy group of clarinetists and accordionists had phenomenal skill, too. A jazz trio or folkloric outfit was always worth a look. The Ramblas could be heard as well as seen, fortunately.
Meanwhile there was no shortage of art stalls to wander through. Caricaturists and portrait painters were well-represented, and you couldn't shake a stick without hitting someone in hippie garb. Throngs mobbed the entire affair over the mile or so from the sea to the main roundabout which ended the street. Ramble on, Ramblas! The Ramblas is the granddaddy of street artlife with good reason.
The rest of my stay in Barcelona was otherwise uneventful, though, even lonely. As is often the case in big cities, hostels don't necessarily create the social outlet they do elsewhere (my magical stay in Rome notably excepted) People are more likely to have their own agenda, or the crush of people in a city renders one's out-going instincts mute. Just by scale alone people might be less interested in meeting their fellow traveler, but I feel that it's the anonymity and multitude of distractions in the big city that is to blame, too.
I thus enjoyed walking the old town, the Olympic Park grounds, and wandering in museums. But I had the sneaking feeling of being a voyeur on the fun a bit. Wandering groups of British soccer hooligans were amusing, as were meandering groups of like drunks out on holiday. This insisted that I look up from my book or coffee at times, but otherwise I didn't feel compelled to join.
Not that I had any regrets of visiting the big Barca, but when the five days there were up and it was time to return to my friends in Copenhagen, I was ready and willing to go. Perhaps I'd come back someday with some friends to do my own partying and tapas bar hopping, who knows? But my laying of the land was complete, or at least sufficient.
So I was back to the big city which started this venture, Copenhagen. This time my friends came over from Odense to spend a couple days visiting with me and some of their own friends who conveniently lived near the town center. The days passed rather quickly and didn't account for much of note, though, for all that. It was just good to see some friends again before jumping on the big jet home back to Seattle.
One thing of note did occur, however. One of the greater coincidences in my life, in fact. Walking in a city park with my Danish friends, I ran into my friend Jim from Portland. We didn't know beforehand that the other would even be there, although we had been in some contact regarding my visiting him and his wife in Switzerland some time in the future.
And here they were! The coincidence enlargened, too, when I noted that I met both Jim and my Danish friends on the same trip in Venezuela about a week apart. It's dumbfounding how these things happen, and how a minute or two of difference in timing could have meant that we never even would have seen each other strolling through this large park. Wacky!
But coincidences don't stop the march of airline schedules, mine included. Soon I was off and rolling down the runway, then soaring above the port city westward. It was time to be back to Seattle and work. Another appropriately random trip had ended; only the planning of the next one remained. And soon.
Back to Travelogues
Back to triptrumpet.com