Friday, May 18, 2012

Sant Jordi in Barcelona (Spain)

In our household, Saint George has always been thought of as an English saint. After all, his red cross on a white background is the English flag and, consequently, adorns many sport-related paraphernalia. In Catalunya, he - as Sant Jordi in Catalan - is even more venerated. For starters, it seems like the most common name in Barcelona. Even in our small circle of acquaintances, we know seven  Jordis! As the patron saint of Catalunya, his feast day on April 23 is a major public holiday.

Here's the legend, as it has been explained to me: A dragon was burninating the countrysides, and the peasants were offering up virgins as sacrifice. The beautiful princess tells her father that, out of responsibility for the realm, she will volunteer herself. The distraught king offers half of his kingdom to save her. Sant Jordi happens to be riding by and courageously goes forth to slay the dragon. The blood spilling from the stab wound turns into a rose. Sant Jordi gets the girl, they get hitched, and they live happily ever after.

In Catalunya, this romantic story also gets entwined with two other significant events that happened on or near Sant Jordi's feast day. In 1616, these were tragic days for literature. William Shakespeare, whose famous works include the star-crossed lovers of Romeo and Juliet, died on April 23 in England. His Spanish counterpart Miguel Cervantes, whose classic novel Don Quixote follows the title character's chivalric adventures dedicated to his lady love Dulcinea, died on April 22.

They all come together in the Catalan holiday. The tradition is for a man to give a rose (honoring Sant Jordi) to the special woman in his life, and for a woman to buy a book (honoring the authors) for the special man in her life. Nowadays these definitions have expanded to include, not just romantic partners, but your mother, father, sister, or brother. Such a popular holiday, of course, has not escaped commercialism. The streets are absolutely packed. Every charity, school club, or organization sells roses, and every bookstore opens outdoor stalls with discounted books. To sweeten the deal, many stores host famous authors who will sign your new book... if you're willing to wait in the interminable lines. We saw a lectern set up on one pedestrian street, where a succession of folks were participating in a marathon public reading of Cervantes's weighty tome. There is even a growing number of bakeries and pastry shops advertising Sant Jordi cakes (another variation on the sponge cake and cream so omnipresent in Spain) and breads (striped in alternating red sobrassada sausage and yellow cheese to mimic the Catalan flag). It's fantastic!

For some reason, the rampant commercialization of this particular holiday doesn't bug me like Valentine's Day in the States. Maybe it's because there is no pressure to anticipate and prepare for the holiday beforehand. The expectation is that roses and books will be bought on April 23 - which explains why Rich was perplexed to be the only customer in a bookstore earlier in the week - and there is no excuse for forgetting on that day because it's impossible not to see or hear the festivities. Maybe it's because even a hefty mark-up on roses, with only a single one to buy, still only amounts to a few euros. But let's face it... anything that encourages widespread reading will always be ace in my book!

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Roskilde (Denmark)

The final stop in our Denmark jaunt was Roskilde. About a half hour west of Copenhagen, the city is known for hosting one of Europe's best outdoor music festivals every July. We were there for a different reason entirely - Vikings!

A thousand years ago Vikings scuttled five ships in the fjord, creating underwater barriers in the navigation channels to protect what was the capital at the time, Roskilde. Fifty years ago a team created another kind of barrier around the area, drained the waters, and excavated the ships. As the centrepiece of the Viking Ship Museum, they are historically significant because each ship was for a different use, ranging from a merchant ship with a crew of 5 people to a longship that could carry 80 warriors. Just like the Iron Islands.

More curious than the preserved ships is that the museum does a lot of experimental archaeology, which is basically being like Mythbusters. There is an actual boatyard on site, where archaeologists and craftsmen build ships using the tools and technologies of the time. Strikingly, Vikings loved their axes so much, they didn't bother with inventing a saw to fell huge trees... which kinda sucks for the modern shipbuilder. The museum also tests the reconstructed ships in real life, most notably in the sailing of a longship from Roskilde to Dublin, Ireland... and back. Watching the documentary, the trip looks pretty miserable - the crew is exposed day and night to the elements, and with just one sail, when the winds are unfavorable, time to row, me hearties, row!

But the best part of the museum is that you can do it, too. Square-sailed boats go out for a short trip around the fjord. After a brief safety chat and demo, we climbed on board, cack-handedly arranged our oars, and rowed into the harbor. Those long oars are so heavy it's amazing we got anywhere, and as non-rowers, our technique left much to be desired... as the old Australian guy in front of me would attest, shouting "Stay with the stroke!" every time I was out of sync or knocking his oar. Thankfully, we made it far enough out that the sail could be put up, and we could enjoy the views. I even got to hold the sail for a while!

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Helsingør and Humlebæk (Denmark)

The pretty little harbor town of Helsingør, or Elsinore, is less than an hour's journey north of Copenhagen. In medieval times, the fortress and castle of Kronborg Slot protected an important waterway between what was then western and eastern Denmark (the latter is now southern Sweden). The very narrow sound controlled access to trade routes for Germany, Poland, the Baltics, Finland, and Sweden. When the Danish kings decided to toll everyone coming through, the money started pouring in. In the ballroom, kings and queens showed their munificence by hosting week-long parties. The food and drink were so abundant that guests took little sips of a sweet alcohol and forced themselves to throw up just so they could keep on eating (à la Hunger Games). No one could or would leave the party, of course, so the men took care of business just outside, and the women just squatted in their hoop skirts in the alcoves. Boy, times were different then.

Medieval comforts being what they were, most of the interior of the castle itself is pretty stark. It is really hard not to draw Game of Thrones comparisons when the mock-up of the castle looks just like the cog-y title sequence in the HBO series and the tour guide tells you that people needed professional sleepers to warm their beds just to survive the cold ("Winter is coming!"). It didn't help that later, back in Copenhagen, our waiter was a dead ringer for Theon Greyjoy (but don't worry, he didn't make us pay the iron price for lunch).

But the biggest draw to Kronborg Slot comes from another author - Shakespeare. He took an old tale about a prince of Jutland, made him a prince of the entirety of Denmark, and moved the story of Hamlet to Kronborg Castle... and the castle has been putting on performances of the Bard's works since 1816. The Shakespeare at Hamlet's Castle summer performance series has allowed Kronborg to name drop some of the most famous actors - Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Christopher Plummer, and Jude Law - in the title role.

Another stop for the cultured crowd is the hamlet of Humlebæk. About 30 minutes north of Copenhagen, it is home to the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art. The property - originally owned by some guy whose three wives all happened to be called Louise, hence, the name - doesn't look like any other contemporary art museums. No sweeping structures. No soaring glass facades. Not even a single minimalist restroom with uber-cool sinks. The place looks like a rambling country house. There are unseen basements and sub-basements and low-ceilinged passageways covered with ivy that integrate with nature so smoothly that it feels like a Frank Lloyd Wright design. Random doors open onto nook gardens with sculptures or terraces with a view of Sweden across the water. The art itself is top-notch. Picasso, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and Alexander Calder are some of the artists in the permanent collection. One of the coolest exhibits during our visit was by Andreas Gursky, whose massive photographs can mesmerise like an ultra-high def Where's Waldo in real life. While Rich didn't care for Gursky's mislabeling of his Supernova piece, the physicist was really taken with the photographer's image of the sci fi-like Kamiokande detector in Japan.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Copenhagen, Part II (Denmark)

Another pleasant surprise in Denmark was how good the food was. Sure, the prices can still be a shock. Four hundred kroner, or 54€, for two main courses, a beer, and a juice would probably be considered reasonable by Scandinavian standards. But the right perspective on the fresh and local ingredients can be just as valuable. Eight euros for decadent heaps of smoked salmon, lashings of fresh dill and chive spread, and mesclun salad on newly baked bread the size of a sub is a bargain in my book!

At dinner in Copenhagen's Latin Quarter, we first became acquainted with the Danes' creativity with salads. Lentils with seaweed, anyone? For lunch, smørrebrød is really traditional. Billed as an "open-faced sandwich," the topping can be piled on so heavily as to render the bread invisible. The bread itself is a beautifully dark rye, densely packed with grains and seeds. Layers of thinly sliced meat, fish, or cheese are artfully arranged on top followed by various accompaniments - salads, pickles, and/or spreads - that seem to be sandwich-specific.

Even ordering just a roll at the bakery for breakfast, each kind receives a specific jam (e.g. sour cherry for poppyseed, rhubarb for pumpkin-seeded). Curiously, these rolls were labeled "danishes" on the menu. What we would call "danishes" were known as wienerbrød (or "Viennese bread"), and a dizzying array confronted us. Cinnamon swirl made for a good choice. The dearth of baked goods in Spain caused me to lose my head a little among such bounty that first time around, and 3 cakes seemed to just order themselves. They became an addiction really, especially when we discovered that Copenhagen's delectable Lagkagehuset bakery has multiple locations. In all seriousness, as a connoisseur of fruit tarts, let me just say that their jordbærkage (or "strawberry tart") is the absolute ideal. This blissful creation has a moist almond cake base coated in dark chocolate and crowned with a delicate chantilly cream and perfectly ripe strawberries. Don't even try to share it. Maybe get one for the road, too... easily achievable, since Lagkagehusets are at the train station and the airport!

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Copenhagen (Denmark)

Five years already?!? Denmark sounded like a fine place for my best travel partner Rich and I to celebrate our wedding anniversary.

First impressions of the country are from the train. The train itself is fast, clean, and smooth. It is so quiet I feel like I must be wearing noise-cancelling headphones. Rich comes back from the bathroom to whisper excitedly, "It's like a real one.. with porcelain and everything!" The landscape is flat, populated by bright, detached houses with modest gardens. Spring is ascendant with the green carpets of lawns and riotous arrays of daffodils and tulips on the borders. There are bike paths everywhere, including one that runs parallel to the track just beyond a hedgerow. Though sunny, it is still a little on the cool side - this is Scandinavia, after all - but the daylight hours are long - again, Scandinavia.

Copenhagen, the capital, continues along the same vein, albeit, in a big city way. It is easily walkable... and cyclable... and possibly even navegable, in the most traditional sense. Copenhagen is built on the islands of Zealand and Amager so there are quite a few interconnecting waterways, and a canal tour is supposed to be a good way to orient yourself in the city. We opted to go on foot, as usual.

A wander along the waterfront will bring you by the Royal Library (its "Black Diamond" wing should cue 2001: A Space Odyssey's score), the statue of The Little Mermaid (from the original story by Denmark's favorite son, Hans Christian Andersen), and the Copenhagen Opera House (like a fly's eye, but in a good way). We took a look at the wooden ships in the Nyhavn heritage harbour and had cozy drinks in a canal-side café in the Freetown of Christiania, an old hippie commune.

For the culturally-minded, Copenhagen has many museums. The National Museum is a good, free one... although a little overwhelming in its wealth of artefacts per exhibit. Looking at the maps, the huge eskimo section in a Danish national museum perplexed me until Rich pointed out that they do own Greenland. Then I just felt sheepish.

For the royally-minded, Denmark is also home to the oldest monarchy in Europe - over 1000 years old. In Copenhagen, you can visit Rosenborg Slot with its pretty formal park (aka Kongens Have) and the crown jewels in the basement. At Amalienborg Palace, current home of the royal family, the ceremonial changing of the guard takes place daily in the central square. It has nearly as much pomp as those of the British royal family's, and yet, I fancy, much smaller crowds. Even only arriving 10 minutes early, we managed to get close enough to see how fresh-faced the soldiers looked and critique their marching steps.