Iceland 1 Reykjavik…July2016

I don’t know where to start when talking about Iceland. The people? The history? The landscape? The towns?

I was and still am totally captivated by Iceland…so familiar yet so exotic. At times I felt I had journeyed to Middle earth.

There is so much information and too many pictures to choose from. Perhaps the best way in is to recap the main places visited in separate blogs and then list all those other facts I collected which round out the picture in a final.

So part 1 of the Iceland sage is Reykjavik, the main town.

Introduction

The 45 minute drive through flat rocky landscape from Keflavik airport is the first sign that Iceland is special. In the distance mountains and volcanos can be seen in every direction.

I learn that the rocky field are in fact fields of lava, Iceland having a third of the world’s lava flow with an eruption on the south coast around every 2 years.

We pass satellite towns of smart new developments. Iceland is strange but the architecture of these new suburbs about 10 years old bring a note of the familiar as does the heavy 5pm traffic flows. There was a building boom here between 2000 and 2008 preceding and in part generating the Icelandic fallout from the Global Financial Crisis.

Reykjavik

What a splendid small lively town swamped by tourists. About 240,000 of Iceland’s 320,000 people live in the capital. More than 1 million tourists would pass through here annually.

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We stayed at the stylish art deco Hotel Bork on Parliament Square, central to everything. Such temperate days with some in shirt sleeves but I hear that in winter the pavements are heated with the abundant cheap thermal electricity.

While there are many smart, opulent satellite suburbs radiating out from the old town, the centre retains a  number of the old houses built of colourful corrugated iron.

 

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Parliament Square is the home of the Althing, a surprisingly small and unpretentious 19th century stone building with a smart extension – surprising until you remember that the population is only 320,000, less than many local authorities/cantons in the western world.

This Parliament is symbolically important as the descendant of the world’s first Parliament when the chieftains with their law reading and judges met annually in the fields 45k west of here.

In this square in 2008 the people gathered to demand action on the financial crisis causing the State to take over the banks’ debts. By November, what is now known as the “pots and pans” revoltion happened. People made constant protest noise with these kitchen tools . The police had to keep calm. Some people started dressing in orange to signify peaceful protest and stood between the police and those with less calm dispositions.

It was suggested that the  bright orange floral borders are an ongoing reminder of those protests.

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The Althing, Parliament House.

Below is one of my favourite monuments in the square – the Monument to Civil Disobedience – reminding citizens of their right to oppose unjust laws

 

Now after 8 years, the debts are paid and young people who went abroad are being encouraged to return.There now seems to be a new wave of construction although the few Icelanders I spoke to were wary, working harder than ever to set themselves up debt free and hoping the cycle was not returning.

Harpa Hall the concert hall, was being built on the waterfront as a convention centre, hotel etc. by a bank when it went bust in 2008; the government bailed them out and this huge cultural centrepiece was completed by the national and city governments. 1.7million visitors a year enjoy this standout building of geometric glass shaped panels. It is a beautiful, imposing building even if perhaps out of scale with the town.

An explanation of the complex but yet simple acoustic system still remains a mystery though impressive to me!

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Hallgrim’s Church, the main Lutheran church stands out from a distance; it was commissioned in 1937 and took 41 years to complete. it is said to be designed o resemble the basalt lava flows of Iceland’s landscape.

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There is a Settlement Museum in town showing an excavation where the first earth and stone houses lay under the foundations of the current town. It also contains copies of  the Book of Icelanders (1130) and the Book of Settlements (13th and 14th Centuries)

The National Museum has a statuette which is believed to be of the god Thor one of the few remaining artefacts of the pre Christian culture.

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The pedestrian area is lively as in many tourist towns though the Japanese tourist below needed a quick nap in a quiet spot:

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Just down the street, crowds were settling in, playing Pokemon Go!!

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Graffiti is always fun:

The installation (?) below was signposted as “speed dating”

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The best way ever of signalling the beginning of the pedestrian only area:

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We also visited Asmundur Sveinsson Sculpture Museum. Sveinsson, a popular 20th century sculptor, designed the impressive white museum.The public art, to my mind, was indicative of the respect shown to artist in Scandinavian countries .

 

These young ones had no interest in the sculpture garden, nor anymore in their skateboards. It was device time as in most parts of the young world now!

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Public sculpture too, pleases the eye:

 

Eating could be interesting too

I enjoyed watching the crowd at one posh restaurant, the Grillmarket, where there was one entrée of 3 sliders filled respectively with puffin, minke whale and lobster. I sat at the bar watching dish after dish of minke whale leaving the kitchen. I enquired of the meat the girl next to me was eating. I was told it was the best horse in town.

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Wine like most things in Iceland was expensive There were Australian wines: – a Wolf Blass President’s Selection at17,900 IK a bottle ($195) and the familiar old Jacob’s Creek cab sav for $359 (gulp). Coffee was $5.90 in most places and glass of Spanish wine about $16.

It wasn’t all chocolates

Lest I have been too carried away, let me give you the one sour note. There I was sitting in bed chewing chocolate when I felt a strange object floating in my mouth. Half a back tooth! The hotel found an emergency dentist. The taxi driver was a gem, walking me out of the cab to the 5th floor or an empty commercial building in a distant satellite suburb at 10.30pm and picking me up. The cheery (and obviously well off dentist as he was off to the Caribbean the next day with his 4 kids) was  equally kind and concerned. What nice people these Icelanders were.

 

More to come……..

 

 

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Three days in Greenland…. Ilulissat July 2016

The only glimpses of Greenland during the long flight to Ilulissat on the west coast were of ice. This should be called Iceland I thought and Iceland from whence I had come, should be called Greenland given the wonderful varied hues of green across that country in summer.

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Greenland from the air on the way in

I had done no reading. I had no expectations. To my embarrassment apart from media on the problem for polar bears with melting ice floes and vaguely knowing the people were Inuit, I knew little. From Borgan, the Danish TV series, I had a visual of a sparse settlement tumbling down a hill and a suspicion that tensions existed between Greenlanders and their legal “protectors”.

I soon got up to speed. Firstly our destination Ilulissat is on the west coast of Greenland, a 3.5 hour flight from Iceland and 250k’s north of the Arctic circle. From the hour plus it seems to take fly over this, the largest island in the world, it appears much of its land surface is covered in ice. Most of its small population lives along the ice-free, fjord-lined coast.

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At the airport we are picked up and in the 10 minute drive to town, the driver volunteers that the icebergs are 30% smaller than they used to be. This is Ilulissat, the 3rd biggest town on the island. The word means “iceberg” and it is why we are here. This is a UNESCO world heritage site because of the “living” glacier which produces the largest iceberg flow in the northern hemisphere into the oddly named Disco Bay.

The first impression of the town is that the people, apart from the tourists at the café (which is run by Thai women) and the Danes who provide much of the tourist infrastructure, the people are all Inuit; 4,500 people live here with an island wide population of 56,000. Apart from a theory that the Inuit came from Mongolia, their antecedants are unknown

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Inuit men play board games in the square

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Inuit women get about their business and stop for a smoke

It is summer and a pleasant 10 degrees with some people in shirt sleeves. Good weather for a G&T on a balcony overlooking the bay.

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What a spot for a G&T

Firstly some context: Greenland is an autonomous territory of Denmark which provides two thirds of the money. This town’s secondary source of funds is tourism, while overall the country supports a $1 billion fishing industry (and a huge Royal Danish refrigerated ship is a sight in itself). A more recent policy allows mineral resource (including uranium) mining and there is also a guest US air base in the north. One optimist even suggested the Americans could give them enough money to enable the self-sufficiency that would allow a break from Denmark.

Fishermen setting up lines for trolling and some of the catch

 

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Part of the fishing fleet

 

Like other very cold climate countries, Greenland has its share of social problems many centring around alcohol and unemployment.

 

The town

The Inuit have lived in Greenland for over 4,000 years. Original houses were sunk into the earth and made of peat, driftwood and furs. Occasionally they built igloos.

Historically, whale fat was traded for sugar, salt and tools.

Now red, blue, green brightly coloured houses sit on concrete foundations in an erratic layout that mystified the town planner in me but seems to reflect the hilly stone outcrops of the landscape. Occasional apartment complexes stand out.

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Dr Google reports: “Hans Egede’s arrival in Greenland in 1721 marked the new colonial style whereby wooden houses were sent up from Scandinavia as timber kits.The colourful tradition of the characteristic, brightly coloured houses began here. The colours were practical and indicated the function of the building: commercial houses were red; hospitals were yellow; police stations were black; the telephone company was green and fish factories were blue.”

Indeed the hospital on the point is still yellow and the houses are now a range of bright primaries.

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Denmark built these flats for local people and below some of the reindeer antlers and sleds that hang from the balconies

Open ended thick pipes jut out from the foundations of many houses. They are attached to the water truck since the town has no reticulated piped water. When I asked why some houses had no water point, one young Greenland man told me that often the “old people” could be seen dragging blocks of ice, off the icebergs, up the hill to supply their water needs.

I am surprised by the size of the electrical goods shops near one of the 2 supermarkets. The TVs are huge, there are many DVD, baby alerts and other electrical paraphernalia. Then I realize that this part of the world is totally dark 24 hours a day in November and December until the sun fleetingly reappears in January. Watching TV would help to pass the dark hours.

In the 24 hour summer days however, flowers bloom:

Packs of small huskie puppies play around town and we were told they cannot be touched until they are 6 months old. Full grown huskies are chained up around the town. They work pulling sleds all winter but in the summer energy needs are slight so they are fed only twice a week.

 

The living glacier and its icebergs

Isulissat means iceberg and the Isulissat Icefjord is the fiord where the icebergs float into the bay from the glacier.

The next day was all about this, the reason we had come here. It was spent walking through the national park to the shore to see the icebergs, then flying over the glaciers in a 6 seater aircraft, and finally sailing the Bay in the night to see the icebergs from the water in the fading light —– although the sun doesn’t really go down at this time of year.

Walked them:

Below is the peat moss of the national park and the first sight of the icebergs at the end of the walk

 

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Finally:

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Icebergs reach across the fiord and melt is a stunning blue

 

Flew them:

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These are icebergs growing on the glacier

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Broken ice floats in the bay

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The melting icebergs can take odd, beautiful shapes

 

Sailed them in the evening:

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The Icefjord is the sea mouth of the 7 km wide Sermeq Kujalleq, one of the few glaciers through which the Greenland ice cap reaches the sea and therefore sometimes called “a living” glacier. Sermeq Kujalleq is one of the most active glaciers in the world.

(According to the air charter company)

  • it regularly calves around 46 km of ice every year;
  • It is one of the fastest moving (up to 40 m per day);
  • if melted the amount of water could cover the annual consumption of water in the USA;
  • it accounts for 10% of the production of all Greenland calf ice and more than any other glacier in the northern hemisphere;
  • The largest icebergs calved are the size of 1.5 cubic kms of ice. This is the equivalent of 30 football fields covered by a layer of ice as high as Mount Everest.
  • at their highest the icebergs can be 125 metres but not now
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From the boat we followed a group of whales around the bay, There are 15 kinds of whale in Greenland. The blue whale and the killer whale are rarely seen. During summer the humpback. the minke and the fin can be seen

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The setting sun never sets in the summer months

Irrelevant post scripts

Underneath, the charters and other well-oiled tourist experiences the town remains touchingly local and unsophisticated.

The best hotel in town is the Arctic Hotel on the cliff top overlooking the harbour. Our hotel although central was a version of Faulty Towers. One of our number did not have a phone in his room yet he was told to ring for room service; when he walked up to order dinner, he was told he would be rung when it was ready.

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And yes, they do serve whale

I leave a cardigan in a cab. The receptionist identified the driver from my description and rings her. The cabbie is off duty; after a number of calls, the cabbie is back on duty but says she does not have the cardigan.

At the airport the Philippino man behind the kiosk (and that’s another story – he thought the agent had organised him a job in Denmark) tells me the cabbie has been there looking for the owner of the cardigan; I cannot ring the hotel and give up; a fellow traveller arrives and hands me the cardigan. He saw it on hotel desk and on spec. picked it up and brought it to airport. The hotel receptionist who made all the calls appeared to have forgotten it

A short stopover

On the way back to Iceland we land for refuelling at Kangerlussuag population 499. The town which seems sparse and in the middle of nowhere, is known for its airport, which is Greenland’s major international transport hub. The airport’s Museum illustrates the town’s past as a U.S. airbase during WWII. A road runs northeast from town to the vast Greenland Ice Sheet. Here, Russell Glacier is a vantage point for ice-calving events.

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This is a pretty big air terminal for a pop. of 499. Inside the terminal is a hotel with its own night club.

It is farewell to the summer night in Greenland, the land of the midnight sun.

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Finland….July 2016

London had been a whirlwind, Berlin the continuation of an affair with the city. Then Helsinki? Finland? – calm, dignified, pleasant – occasionally bland? When I read this blog back it isn’t the normal easy informative, sometimes wry tale of my observations and experiences. This is more a recording of information, more lecture notes.

It may be that my responses were simply a counterpoint to the high of the previous fortnight, especially since I was now travelling with strangers.

I joined a small group tour in Helsinki – ah! group travel! I haven’t done much, mostly with the university to exotic places (Timbuktu, Libya, Syria). Group experiences themselves deserve at least a blog. Your instincts are constrained, your time pre-determined, the schedule rapid, the path pre-trodden, control out of your hands — a tourist not a traveller. Cocooned in a new world.

Luckily the group leader was not just charming but also erudite, learned and engaging.

History in a nutshell

To start understanding Finland (as much as one can do on a whistle stop, roller coaster tour) the briefest contextual setting is necessary. First it is a surprise that the official languages are both Swedish and Finnish although Finns comprise 93% of the population and Swedes only 6%. History explains that.

Although people have lived in Finland for 9000 years, the Swedes controlled the country from early in the 14th century until the beginning of the 19th century when Russia took over and Finland became the Russian Grand Duchy of Finland.

Finnish is a language with links to Hungarian and a smaller family of northern languages unrelated to Scandinavian ones. It was not written until the mid 16th century when Bishop Agricola translated the New Testament

The Russians granted increased power to the Finnish parliament in 1869 and the use of the Finnish language spread. However, by the beginning of the 20th century, programs of Russification were widespread. Finland finally became independent in 1917. Russia invaded in 1939 and finally Finland agreed an alliance with Germany. Consequently Finland ceded Karelia, 10% of its land, to the Russians

In 1995 Finland joined the EU and later adopted the euro. Imagine being a country of 5.4 million people living next door to a belligerent neighbour of 300 mill. Potential retaliation may well be why Finland does not upgrade its partnership agreement with NATO to full membership.

Her endeth the history lesson. I mention the history because its stages are written in the architecture of the city.

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The first sign to greet you in Helsinki airport is this one; a reminder that many months of the year are very cold and very dark when a warming wine might be welcome.

Street life in the city

People play:

 

People pray:

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People enjoy street art and sculpture:

People busk:

and pigeons enjoy statues

Helsinki – The Architecture

A city the size of Helsinki, 560,000, evokes thoughts of large provincial Middle European centres big enough for some signature architecture.

 

Neo-Classicism

Sitting high above much of the city centre is the main Evangelic Lutheran Cathedral, a symbol of Helsinki. It was designed by a Berliner, Carl Ludwig Engel in the 19th century (completed in 1852) as part of the Empire-style-downtown Helsinki area.

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Below is Senate Square framed with buildings in the Empirical Grand Classical style. The pale yellow buildings also designed by Carl Ludwig Engel dominate it. He was the architect of much of the Square including the Government Palace, the National Library and the main buildings of the University of Helsinki.

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Russian Architecture

Completed in 1868 the Uspenski Cathedral is the largest orthodox church in Western Europe. With its golden cupolas and redbrick facade, the church is one of the clearest symbols of the Russian impact on Finnish history.

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Art Nouveau

Art nouveau architecture was interpreted in Finland as its own form of National Romanticism.

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Some of the finest art nouveau examples include Saarinen’s Central Railway Station (1914).

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The Aschan Café has some splendid nouveau features.

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Modernism

The Helsink University Library,whilst it has an interesting exterior is more interesting because of what it shows about modern architecture. It is built to maximise internal light and the fittings, as are those of a nearby supermarket, are made of beautifully turned and pleasing wooden shelves – not our ugly tin shelving. Indeed the Finnish reputation for good design shows in the details of so many of the buit interiors.

 

 

Other fine pieces of architecture we whistle stopped through were both in central Helsinki, the Church in the Rock, literally that, and the  Chapel of Silence in one of the city’s busiest squares.

 

At the  Seurasaari Island open air museum old buildings have been relocated here to show how people sued to live in previous centuries.

 

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It’s summer in Finland so this chap out walking to the island was wearing appropriate shades

 We were told a few times that Finland honours its heroes and those heroes are its artists and intellectuals. (Perhaps a long cold winter sets the scene for creativity.)

Sibeleus

Perhaps the most famous Finn of all is the great composer Jean Sibeleus. A visit to his home and an insight into his life is a centrepiece of a visit to Finland.

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Sibeleus and his wife Aino lived the 65 years of their married life at Villa Ainola part of the artists’ colony near Lake Tuusula.

Sibeleus would wander in the countryside around his home and take inspiration from the landscape; he would compose work in his head and then return home and put it to paper. It is said Aino would be relieved to hear the sound of his working as she could sleep then knowing his creative struggle was resolved.

As he lay dying his music was played on national radio and filled the air of the villa.

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A rose from the Sibeleus’ garden

 

Alvar Aalto

Aalto designed a number of public buildings in Helsinki, the most notable being the while tiled Finlandia Hall, a palace of culture, now managed in a private/public partnership. The white tiling is evocative of the Sydney Opera House, not surprising as it the latter was designed by a fellow northerner, the Danish Jorn Utzon

We visited the home of, and homes designed by, Aalto. Mention has to be made of his wife, another architect, who kept the show on the road after his death.

Aino and Alvar Aalto’s home was completed in 1936. In this as in their other works, the young architects combined the modern and traditional. Furniture designed by the Aaltos won international acclaim by the early 1930s, and their home is furnished with their own designs. Pieces by well known artists such as Le Corbusier and Alexander Calder were part of their environment.

Below are views of the house from the back, the view of the garden and the light shades designed by the AAltos.

 

On the fringes of the city we visited another Aalto house, which was quite an experience. The Villa Kokkonen´s atelier was designed for music, commissioned as it was by Kokkonen, a composer. The host and hostess, pianist Elina and opera singer Antti, have taken over the house to lovingly restore it. Their tour exists of a meticulaous recital of restoration details by the excitable Antti, a splendid lunch prepared by Elina and then a musical interlude by both.

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A break from buildings —irises from the garden of Villa Kokkonen

 

Another visit to a Finnish villa took us to the Didrichsen Art Museum. Once the home of private collectors, it now shows both Finnish and international art.

Below area 1964 Picasso and a henry Moore which sits in the garden.

 

Within the famous artists’ colony of Tuusula, stands the home of Pekka Halonen one of the most beloved artists of the ‘Golden Era’ of Finnish art. He like Sibelius,took inspiration from the landscape and painted both nature and people.

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At the end go the 1880’s many of the leading artists of Finland built wilderness ateliers in the ideal landscape of the national romantic period. The fringes of Lake Tuusula provided such an environment as the pictures  below of the lake today show.

 

Meanwhile back in Helsinki, I cannot leave this blog without mentioning my favourite works in the the Ateneum at Railway Square part of the Finnish  National Gallery collection……

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An amazing face on the “selfie’s wall”

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Gallen -Kallela  painted Lemminkainen’s Mother as part of his Kalevala themed works. This is a mother and son story about the death of a warrior

 

And for light relief, the Kaarina Kaikkonen  used shirt installation in the courtyard,

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Next we headed to Savonlinna for some music. It is worth noting that music plays a central part in the education system of Finland; some lower schools are music based while there are a number of music high schools

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After a train ride north through the interminable pine forests, we arrived at Savonlinna, closer to Russia than to Helsinki. Here in the furthest castle in the north of the earth, the annual music festival was happening.

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The first night Riccardo Muti  conducted the orchestra he founded, the Luigi Cherubini Youth Orchestra performing  Beethoven’s Fifth; next night Don Giovanni was the offering.

I was entranced by the symphony and understood perhaps for the first time how a great conductor can create wonderful music from what is perhaps not a world-class orchestra.

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The second night I left the Opera Festival Choir and Orchestra performance of Don Giovanni at interval. Perhaps it was the closeness of the air inside the castle..

And finally this little duck left Finland…..

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and yes…I did eat reindeer…dear me..goodness… Rudolph?

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