Thursday, 28 February 2008

Freezing in Tallinn

View of the medieval old town of Tallinn, Estonia.

So we left Germany and landed in Helsinki, Finland for a two day stopover. This was a great chance to meet up with some of our Delhi-based Finnish friends, who were also home for the holidays. We stayed with the parents of our good friend Juho, who graciously gave up his room for us. Nitoli was also delighted for the opportunity to shop with Mirva. We also went out for a happy night on the town. But as always I neglected to take pictures of any of these social events.

However, having already seen Helsinki I decided to take the ferry across the Bay of Finland to visit Tallinn, the beautiful capital of Estonia. It was an extremely cold and for that same reason Nitoli decided to stay back in Helsinki with Mirva. Morning temperatures were a chilling -15° Celsius (5°F), but it was a beautiful day with a clear blue sky.

Pre-dawn picture from the ferry to Tallinn. Thick layers of ice have formed over a lamp giving it a nice and weird light.

Being on my own, I took the opportunity to spent the day just walking around the town, taking in the sights and taking lots of pictures. I spent most of my time walking around the medieval old town, which is filled with old buildings and lots of atmosphere. However, I would like to come back there in the summer, as I think it would be much more lively at that time. Despite a lot of Russian tourists, there was a certain deserted feel to the place.

Tallinn has a very rich historical heritage mostly stemming back to its days as a powerful member of the Hanseatic League. There are, however, also a few remnants from the days of Danish rule over Estonia in the 13th century.

Tallinn (which allegedly means "Danish Castle") holds a very special place in Danish history as legend tells us that our national flag, Dannebrog, fell from the sky here during a mighty battle on June 15, 1219, making it by far the oldest national flag in the world still in use. The Danish forces under King Valdemar II were on a crusade to Christianise the Estonians. The Danes were attacked by Estonian forces and were being beaten badly. But just as the battle appeared lost Dannebrog came floating down from the sky causing the Danish forces to rally around it and defeat the enemy. How much truth there is to the story is hard to say and given today's morals its hard to really see the imperialistic, crusading Danes as the good guys of that story. But it was still fun to see a foreign place so thoroughly ingrained in national Danish myth.

First rays of the morning sun fall on the elegant buildings of the lower old town.

The city slowly waking up from the winter night. Most of the people in the street are tourists though.

Stall keepers at the Town Square (Raekoja Plats) of Tallinn in warm, medieval dress.

As any medieval town should old Tallinn is surrounded on most sides by walls and charming guard towers with orange roofs.

Many interesting little details to look at all over the town.

Santa on his way to visit a local family.

More guard towers.

Nice city gate over a cobble stone street.

The Russian-Orthodox Alexander Nevsky Cathedral at Lossi Plats.

A couple in the cold and deserted upper old town of Toompea walk under the national flag of Estonia, which the people here have had to struggle hard to get to fly openly.

Over the whole day I must have walked 10 to 15 kilometres. I mostly covered the old town, but on the recommendation of my guide book I also went to the south to find the restaurant Eesti Maja, which makes authentic Estonian food. I also made it to the area around the main train station, which is incredibly run down and reminded me that until 17 years ago this was part of the Soviet Union.

My lunch at Eesti Maja: Mashed potatoes, which on the menu was called potato pudding, with bacon sauce. It is hearty fare, which isn't very different from food you could get back in Denmark. Filling and nice - especially for winter - but not higher culinary art.

An old abandoned, run-down industrial building near the railway station. I feel certain this must be a remnant of the unhappy Soviet Union days.

Not all of Tallinn is medieval or run down. Looking past on the of the town's church spires, modern buildings are shooting up to the east of the old town. In fact Estonia has managed its transition from communism to capitalism well and is flourishing economically.

After just 8 or so hours in Tallinn I took the ferry back to Helsinki, where Mirva and Juho showed us the night-life of the Finnish capital. The next day we flew back to India. Although this trip to Europe was too short, it was still weird to experience how coming back to Delhi now feels like I'm coming home. I guess that until recently I was just a long-term visitor in India. But recently it has dawned on me that this is my home now. I wonder how long I will remain a resident of India?

As we flew back to India my beloved old Europe bid us farewell with an indescribably beautiful sunset covering the entire eastern horizon with amazing colours. This picture really doesn't do it justice.

Close-up of the sun sinking into the horizon. It looks almost as if the earth was being consumed by floating lava.

Tuesday, 19 February 2008

Slesvig (Schleswig)

A nice old street close to the Cathedral in Slesvig.

Our days in Denmark ended with a laid-back New Year's Eve with some of my old friends in Århus. It was nice to catch up, but I didn't really manage to take any noteworthy pictures there, so no visuals. We went back to Germany for a few last days in my parents' place, before flying on to Finland. On our last - and excruciatingly cold and grey - day in Germany my father took us to the town Slesvig (Schleswig in German), which was once part of the Kingdom of Denmark. These days it's a fairly small provincial German town, but there still are some cultural gems there leftover from the Danish days.

First we went to the Cathedral of Slesvig, the oldest parts of which date back to the 12th century. It's a beautiful and cosy church, which houses several pieces of Danish history: The graves of two of our kings, and a very famous altar, which is part of the official Danish cultural canon (list of particularly important cultural works in Danish history).

Inside the beautiful and intimate Cathedral, with Christmas trees still in place.

The celebrated wood carved Bordesholm altar, created by legendary artisan Hans Brüggeman in the years 1514-1521.

The tomb of Danish king Frederik the first, who died while Slesvig was still under Danish rule. Now he rest in modern day Germany, but he still has his Danish coat of arms with him.

Following that we went to the Gottorp (Gottorf in German) Castle, which houses a surprisingly interesting and eclectic museum. Allegedly people come from all over Northern Europe to visit this place. I had never really been aware of it. But I'm really glad we went, although we didn't have enough time there. Below I show a random collection of things that I liked in the museum.

The famous Nydam-boat, which is the oldest row boat ever recovered in Northern Europe. It was in use in the 4th century A.D. It is housed in a modern annex.

Nitoli and Ole in one of the old halls of the castle.

Nitoli in yet another hall. Every hall at Gottorp seem to have a unique flavour to it.

I particularly liked this little everyday hygiene kit, which was used by some person around 1600 years ago. It's a metal container with room for a par of tweezers and an ear cleaner. How neat.

A face with a lot of character. I assume it must have been a decorative piece in a church originally.

Nitoli admiring a great statue.

Wednesday, 13 February 2008

Dark December Days in Denmark

Heavily decorated house in Silkeborg

After Christmas was over Nitoli and I went to Denmark to spend the days until New Year in Århus and Silkeborg catching up with family and friends. It was dark and depressing weather, but still nice and relaxing. For all the social calls I forgot everything about being a tourist, so I took no pictures of all that. However we also found time to be a little cultural and visit some of the local museums, which open specially in the Christmas days.

In Silkeborg we went to two museums. First we went to Aqua freshwater museum and aquarium, which deals with the wildlife and nature you can find in the lake district of Jutland, where Silkeborg is situated. They have lots of live animals, including fish birds and rodents such as beaver, otter and mink. There are also lots of little exhibitions giving an idea of the cycle of life in and around the Freshwaters of Denmark. It is an extremely child friendly place, which is all about seeing and touching, so we took along my nephew Asbjørn and my niece Johanne.

Asbjørn getting to touch a grass snake.

Johanne and Nitoli at the touch basin where you can stick down your hand and touch the very big fish there.

A charming resident at "Aqua"

The second museum we went to is Silkeborg Museum, which is mainly known as the home of the world famous Tollund man. He is one of the best preserved of the bog people - humans found in bogs around northern Europe having been preserved by the acid and other chemical features of the bogs. Around the year 400 BC he was either murdered or ritually sacrificed and thrown into the bog with the noose still around his neck. And today you can still go and stand face to face with him, as he lies there in eternal rest. Despite the fact that I lived in and around Silkeborg for almost my entire childhood and youth I never managed to see this unique man until this particular trip, where I came as a tourist from India.

The Tollund Man. The chemicals of the bog has made his skin all leathery.

A close-up at the Tollund Man's face. Incredible how you can still see the wrinkles in his forehead and the stubbles on his face, suggesting he hadn't shaved on the day of his death.

In Århus we re-visited The Old Town (open-air museum), which we both saw in the summer of 2006. It wasn't really new to us, but they had some special Christmas exhibits on, so we figured it was worth a new visit.

A dark, cold and depressing day in the Old Town. But it's still charming.

In one of the old reconstructed stores in the Old Town. Not that I'm wishing myself back to those days, but there was a different charm to your shopping experience.

Nitoli in the Old Town (Den Gamle By in Danish).

Nitoli in one of the old - and very basic - dining rooms.

Tuesday, 12 February 2008

A Traditional Danish Christmas

Nitoli decorating the Christmas tree. My grandmother watches from the background.

Spending Christmas with my parent's was a thrilling experience for many reasons. Firstly it was my first Christmas at home with the family since 2003, so that was long overdue. Secondly it was Nitoli's first Danish Christmas ever (although taking place in Northern Germany). Being a Christian she has obviously also celebrated Christmas with her family in Nagaland - as I was lucky to be a part of the previous year - but it's a different thing in many ways. To mention just one example they don't exchange gifts there, putting more emphasis on the religious aspect of the holiday. Thirdly, although there was no snowfall, we almost had a white Christmas, which is rare. Due to the very low temperatures outside plants were covered in a lovely white rime frost.

Frost covered plants and berries on the day of Christmas Eve.

In this post I'll invite you inside to experience a traditional Danish Christmas. Unlike the UK, US and other places the main day of Christmas in Scandinavia is the 24th. In the morning we get up and start wrapping the last presents, decorate the tree (which is always real) and other practicalities. Guests arrive around midday, or perhaps even the night before.

In the afternoon we go to church for about an hour, before dinner gets served at 18:00 (6 pm). As per tradition the Christmas menu consists of roast duck with red cabbage and fried potatoes (some fried in sugar and some in butter).

For desert we eat the traditional ris a'la mande, which is a rice porridge mixed with whipped cream, chopped almonds and vanilla. There is always one whole almond in the bowl and whoever finds it will win a price.

Ole and Nitoli enjoying a glass of Cava (Spanish version of Champagne), while waiting for dinner. This photo and the three following were taken by my sister, Rikke.

My "farmor" (father's mother in Danish) and Jacob, my sister's boyfriend.

Me and my father.

My mother busy in the kitchen getting the last stuff ready for dinner. In fairness it has to be said that she did receive offers for help, but at this point preferred minimal interference.

Finally all of us seated for dinner at the Christmas table. My sister Rikke is third from the left.

A look at the menu. The roast duck and potatoes are in traditional style, while the red cabbage has been mixed with other greens to make it a more modern salad.

After dinner, my father goes to the living room and lights the candles on the tree. We only use real live candles - no electricity involved.

The lit tree in all its glory with presents underneath.

We then proceed with the uniquely Scandinavian tradition of dancing around the Christmas tree, while singing Christmas hymns. In reality it's more like walking around in a circle while holding hands, but we call it dancing. To outsiders, this might seem like a bizarre tradition, and truth be told I've always myself found it slightly uncomfortable. However, it is an integral part of the Danish Christmas experience, and most people wouldn't consider it a real Christmas without this element.

I took a video of us dancing around the Christmas tree and wanted to put it on here. But the file was too big and after several failed attempts at compressing it I gave up. This is a snapshot from the video, hence the low resolution.

After dancing, typically around 22:00 or so, we finally get to open our presents. Some families have a very disciplined ceremony where everyone watches each present being opened: Not in my family! It's a free-for-all frenzy and it rarely takes more than 15 minutes to get through the whole bunch. When we were kids we would get a bunch of presents, but these days I'm down to about 6 or so (each of my siblings, parents, grandmother and Nitoli).

The gift opening frenzy is in full swing, with only a few lonely packets left under the tree.

We finish off the night with coffee, brandy and various Christmas confections made from marzipan, chocolate and other good stuff. When I was younger, I was not by any standard the traditionalist type of person. But actually, traditions aren't all that bad - as long as you're not too bound by them.