Wednesday, December 22, 2004

James visits the German Christmas Markets

Lubeck - Hamburg - Bremen


A few last things about Scandinavia....

Stockholm: A shoppers paradise, filled to the brim with department stores, gallerias and designer clothes shops. If you can afford it that is.

Copenhagen: A bikers paradise, filled to the brim with bikes left in every nook and cranny in the streets, against shops, congregating in the middle of a square, all seemingly abandoned, but cunningly locked securely. In fact bikes have so much power I think they even get more footpath space than us lowly pedestrians. Speaking of walking my leg has improved a lot since I walked into a lamp post the other day...

And then I went to Germany...

Arrived in Lubeck at night, the best time to really admire the town with the laser lights beaming from the towers of the cathedral in the centre of town to the towers on the beautiful large medieval city gate, almost looking like tightropes made of coloured light. Lubeck is a town that many people don't care to visit: usually they catch a cheap EasyJet or RyanAir flight to its airport and then catch a bus direct to Hamburg, without even stopping to admire this beautiful medieval red brick town, with Romanesque/gothic striking architecture, and the friendly people.

Nobody does Christmas markets like Germany!

And why not, as the markets, much like most Christmas traditions, all mainly stem from Germany itself. After all, isn't that why I’m here now? (Or am I deluding myself and am really here to see about a girl? (who I’m seeing tomorrow) )

So what is a Christmas market? Basically the townsfolk set up wooden huts/stalls decorated with Christmas lights, tinsel, greenery etc, and sell (exquisite expensive) Christmas decorations, candy, gifts, and all sorts of good food and wine. "Gluhwein" is a spicy hot wine, good for the cold days - bratwurst sausage and roast stands, fried potato cakes, battered fish, burgers... sautéed champignons with onion and garlic yogurt sauce is not what I expected to see but it's everywhere...

There's also rides, Ferris wheels, Christmas parades, musicians... In Hamburg even a flying Santa and reindeer - they tied a sleigh to a rope between the town hall and another building on the other side of the square, then a motor dragged it through to the other side. Only problem was once they got to the other side, the only way Santa could go was BACKWARDS to where he started. Which slightly destroyed the illusion of "bye kids, Santa is leaving now" but hey it's the thought that counts!

Hamburg is Germany's 2nd largest city. It also is one of the largest ports in the world, and Hamburg's Reeperbahn has reputedly more prostitutes than Amsterdam.
More expensive too, but hey how would I know?

Still, there's lots more to see in Hamburg. I've been through the famous Alter ElbeTunnel (Old tunnel under the Elbe river), which I have recently noted features in many German film clips!

Not many people are backpacking these days, in fact there's only a tiny few people in the hostels I’ve been in Germany, and they only speak German so I’ve been pretty much on my own these last days.

Bremen is a nice town, has a very dramatic town centre with the twin tall towers of the cathedral imposing itself over the rest of the square - the spectacularly intricately garnished town hall adding to its glory. Not to mention the bright colourful Christmas market in the square itself! And a first for them - they also now have a
medieval Christmas market too!

Visited the Becks Brewery there, where I had consumed many free beverages (which this email is being written under the influence of),
and met some locals, who will show me around Bremen tonight...

Speaking of which I’m about to go meet them, so...

Frohe Weihnachten!

Sunday, December 19, 2004

James embraces Swedish culture with meatballs at IKEA


Ah, Scandinavia, the place where a Danish pastry is called "Vienna Bread" a hotdog is French, and the PUB is a department store...

Anyway... a flip of a coin sent me via night bus from Copenhagen to STOCKHOLM! Yay!

First impression of Stockholm was the magnificent array of light illuminating the whole city even at 6am when I arrived by overnight bus. In fact all the towns I passed in the night were brightly lit up by thousands of lights... I hate to see the electricity bill in these parts...

Stockholm is a very beautiful city indeed, with bright earthy yellow, red and orange coloured buildings in the old town amid narrow cobbled streets; large baroque townhouses along the several waterfronts; period romantic old villages and houses in the green open-air museum of Skansen park with the Nordic zoo containing wolverines, reindeer, bears and seals; Christmas markets abound selling xmas paraphernalia and candy amid outdoor ice skating rinks filled with children... including me, not the most graceful ice skater mind you, but I survived unscathed...

The hostel I’m staying at is pretty cool. Located close to the centre of Stockholm, it has a free sauna, free pasta, and free internet! How can you go wrong with that? Met some pretty cool people here too; to name a few: - Daan, a funny 19yo Dutch guy who likes watching MTV with a talent of sweet talking his way through anything - then there's Zoe, a funny 23yo funky Aussie chicky who makes jewellery;
Lorna, a Maltese 30yo woman with a beautiful singing voice; Holly and Jasmine, pretty Aussie sisters 19 and 15 years old who we somehow managed to smuggle into all the clubs and bars we went to even though you needed to be 20 or older to enter (thanks to Daan)...

Watched the Noble Prize winners and participants from all over the world entering the Concert hall where the awards ceremony takes place every year in Stockholm on December 10th. Was uneventful but still nice to be part of such an important global occasion.

Also was there for the Lucia light festival, where a very beautiful girl is crowned St Lucia, who, with her crown of candles, is paraded around Stockholm and then sings with her choir at Skansen, and finalised by fireworks (which were pretty dismal apparently). it was funny how all the guys at the hostel were saying how hot she was until someone mentioned she was only about 14! Whoops!

Anyway, to embrace Swedish culture, guess where I went? That's right, IKEA!! The first designer furniture store they ever made right here in Stockholm! And, to further immerse myself in the Swedish experience, I ate Swedish meatballs in their restaurant! Swedish meatballs are nothing special actually, but still something one has to do...

Didn't get the chance to eat Reindeer though, so I guess I won't feel guilty for having eaten Rudolph this Christmas...

Sweden/Stockholm has a few downsides. One is that you can only go to clubs when you're 23 or older, and even some bars won't let you in unless you're at least 20! Also, you can only buy decent "cheap" alcohol at government run bottle/wine shops called "Superbolaget" (which, following Aussie culture of abbreviating everything, I call it the "SysBo"). Otherwise you would have to pay extortionate prices (12-20 AUD) just for a beer in a bar! Stockholm is very expensive, comparable to London...

Did manage to have a very cheap Saturday night clubbing with hostel folk however. Firstly we bought many bottles of wine from the "SysBo", then made our way to a "cheap" bar in the south of Stockholm. Then somehow, Daan managed to sweet talk the security guard at a very popular Swedish nightclub to let us straight in past the queue for free, and then have her look after our coats
all night! (Because the cloakroom was full) Not sure how he did it but we were all very impressed!

Anyway, I’m writing this in a very tired state having just arrived in Copenhagen from overnight bus (so hope this email makes sense), in order to catch another bus to Lubeck, Germany, later today. Then I’ll go to Hamburg, then Bremen, then Xmas in Hildesheim...

Wednesday, December 8, 2004

Injured James ponders life in a cafe in Copenhagen

Copenhagen - Malmo


Still in Copenhagen as you can tell. Why aren't I instead gallivanting around the city or other towns in Denmark you ask? Because I’ve been silly enough to injure my right knee and left calf, that’s why, being to self absorbed enjoying and walking the sights all over Copenhagen, I’ve overexerted my poor legs. Not to mention the sudden transition from hot Melbourne weather to cold Copenhagen weather has not been friendly to one's joints...

Not a good situation to be in, seeing that I’m supposed to be backpacking and all. Health is the most important thing to a backpacker, for without it you cannot really travel. Having said that, it hasn't stopped me and this Italian guy (Antonio) - who had sprained his ankle - from limping to the Carlsberg brewery for the free tour and beers, both limping on the right leg, arms outstretched, yelling "Beer!" in true Zombie like fashion!

As you can see I’m not the only one to have injured myself. In fact, a girl called Marta (Spanish) has injured her foot from walking too much, and Jason (oz) has lost all feeling in his right heel!

Anyway, Copenhagen is an awesome chilled out place. The city is quite sizable, full of gardens, lakes and canals, peaceful, laid back...the streets are clean, people are friendly, and the city at night is a sight to behold.

I love being in the main pedestrian street mall (1.6km long) at 5pm when it's dark, the smell of roasted caramelized peanuts wafting through the crisp cold air; hordes of shoppers in winter coats hustling and bustling past each other clutching shopping, dinner and Christmas presents; the vast multitude of Christmas lights adorning every nook and cranny, tree and building, colours of white, yellow, green and red, illuminating the clean paved cobblestones; buskers playing all sort of music adding to the festival like atmosphere... there's me, sitting by the fountain with a hot chocolate banana crepe in hand keeping me warm... indeed, these are the moments I truly live for, and appreciate more the beauty of life and what it truly is and has to offer if one were to stop and look, listen, touch, taste it...give life it's due attention, for it is surely a magnificent thing, life - a fragile flame so short, and easily, unexpectedly, and tragically extinguished before you know it.

Sights of Copenhagen include “The Little Mermaid” statue, the palaces and castles, the Carlsberg brewery with the famous elephant statues holding up the Carlsberg brewery tower...also the State of Christiania.

The State of Christiania was a "social experiment" run by squatters who took over a large area of land and the city's abandoned army barracks. What they did was turn it into an area that was outside the jurisdiction of the EU and Copenhagen itself - it has it's own laws, no taxes, people live there in free trade in wooden houses and broken down buildings decorated with artistic graffiti. Here you'd find flea markets, hippies, soft drug dealers (hard drugs were abolished years ago), dirt roads, no cars, the feeling you've stepped out of the EU and back in time. In fact, leaving the place you'd read a sign saying "You are now entering the EU". Clever.

Occasional police raids run through the area, but apart from that the state is pretty much left to its own. Probably due to it being a magnet for tourism.

Did a day trip to Malmo in Sweden with Marta, (Spanish). We caught a bus that went over the very long beautiful silver suspension bridge joining Sweden with Denmark,
I think the longest suspension bridge in the world, several kilometres long, indeed a work of art and ingenious architectural engineering... the waters are of artic white blue colour by day, pitch black at night.

Malmo itself is as chilled out as Copenhagen. The 3rd largest city in Sweden, it's the only city I know that has a picturesque open cemetery in the middle of the town square! The architecture of the place is exquisite, copper roofed ornamented buildings, bronze sculptures all over the place, the many bridges, rivers, canals, gardens...a small outdoor ice skating rink set up in one of the smaller prettier German looking squares under the large trees with it's boughs overladen with thousands of Christmas lights...a sea of large red candles - flames floating over the blackness of the grassy banks in the town square at night, awash with colour and light, is a sight to behold.

I meet a lot of interesting characters on my travels, because I have time left I’ll describe a few:

There’s a Japanese guy here called Nory, who speaks perfect English in true American accent. An ex-hard drug dealer in Washington, he's lived all over the world since the age of 4, from Japan to Africa to America to Europe. Only 18 years of age yet I find him to be a quite worldly, generous, funny character. He's going back to Japan soon to work on a farm. As you do.

Marta is the second Spanish person I’ve become quite good friends with after Erik ("Johnny Depp" look-alike from when I was in Lisbon last year). Marta looks a little like Penelope Cruz. Sorta. A great gal, friendly, a vivacious independent spirit with a good sense of humour - one could easily fall in love with her if you weren't careful. She lives in Pamplona, a final year architecture student with a passion for travel as her father is a ship captain who sails all over the world.

Antonio, as I’ve mentioned before, is not your typical Italian stereotype. A RyanAir steward, looks a little like Jude Law (me and my celebrity look-alike observations - it's your fault Emily! ), is witty, good natured, not sleazy, with a soft heart of gold. A good board game player, he was very sad to part company with us at the hostel.

Anyway, time is now running out, so I’ll keep you all posted on my whereabouts through the rest of Denmark and North Germany soon...


Wednesday, December 1, 2004

Back in the Other Side of the World.

I'M BACK!!!!!!!!!

Well, here I am again, back doing the backpacking thing again....after being back at home for 1 month!!

Of course, in true James style, something has to go wrong with my car the last days before leaving home. Last time it was a parking ticket. This time it was a car accident. I get to my car after my last night out in the city at 2am to find that someone had smashed the car parked behind mine, which in turn was crashed into the back of my car! Luckily the guy who did it was nice enough to leave their name and number, so it will hopefully sort itself out in the hands of my dad while I’m away for another year or so....

Anyway, had a very long plane trip from Melbourne to London, followed by an EasyJet flight to Copenhagen. Because I was flying the night before my birthday from Melbourne, effectively I had celebrated my birthday 3 times due to the time zone changes, 1 in Oz, 1 in Singapore (stopover), and 1 in London/Copenhagen! However, even though it mentioned the fact it was my birthday to many places in hopes for discounts, I got none! Except an extra bottle of red wine on the plane, but they are all complimentary anyway!! Oh well...

Cold. Dark. Wet. Christmassy. These were the first impressions of Copenhagen in my head as I arrived after a long trip from home. But I’m loving it. More on that in one of my big emails later.
I'm a little worried that a lot of hostels have closed for the winter meaning there will be many places where I won't be able to find a place to stay.
But I’m optimistic that things will work out...

So, plans for the moment are to spend this month in Denmark and north Germany, spending Xmas to New Year with Charlotte and family in Hildesheim, then fly back to Bristol to do some more work till my working holiday visa runs out in May...