After experiencing the wild exuberance of the Vigeland Sculpture complex, the Oslo City Hall is a model of sobriety with its red-brick exterior and rational layout, entrance courtyard with fountain and carvings from Norse myths, and long central hall flanked by two towers. Instead of naked writhing people, the artwork is reflective of the Norwegian character based on foundation myths and history.
While there are oil paintings and ceramic plaques, such as these honoring women,
much of the artwork in the interior of the grand building is in the form of fresco, a medium I particularly like.
The far end of the Great Hall, the site of the annual Nobel Peace Prize ceremony, is a history of Oslo.
But by far the frescoes on one wall are the most moving. They are titled “The Occupation Frieze” done by Alf Rolfsen to remind and commemorate the Nazi Occupation of Norway from 1940 to 1945. They comprise the history of this bleak period from fear, terror, resistance, and finally freedom. And I found them unforgettable and a warning to us all that freedom is not guaranteed.
Another monument to war and peace is the Akershus Fortress located on a hill abutting the Oslo waterfront not far from the city hall. The central part is a medieval castle founded in the late 1200s, modernized in the 1500s. Numerous other buildings make up the complex: dark passages, stables, fortified gates, guardhouses and a drawbridge. The Powder Magazine Tower erected in 1755, served as Death Row for Norwegian Resistance fighters and nearby is their execution ground.
A museum dedicated to the Resistance occupies a small building dating from 1691. The display is chronological, beginning with April 9, 1940, when Norway was unexpectedly attacked and a coup d’état resulted in a government run by the infamous Quisling and the Norwegian Nazi Party. The event is memorialized by a brutal sculpture of German Mauser Rifles in the shape of a swastika.
The exhibit continues with photographs of the war years marked by hardship and defiance with the final triumph of freedom regained.
The bookshop has narratives and memoirs in both Norwegian and English. I bought The Winter Fortress by Neal Bascomb, recounting the amazing story of the young men who sabotaged a power plant to foil Hitler’s aspiration to build an Atomic Bomb.
The fortress now hosts cultural events. I watched children enjoying a comedy and hoped they would all be able to live their lives without the specter of hunger and war hanging over them.
While I would never count the number of statues on display in any other museum I’ve visited, it’s hard not to count when describing the Norwegian sculptor Gustav Vigeland’s work on display in the 80-acre sculpture garden set in the lovely Frogner Park in Oslo. To sum up: the individual works total 220 bronze and granite human forms plus some strangely compelling wrought iron work. The entrance gates were the first to capture my eye.
Vigeland, was a well-known sculptor in Norway by 1924 when he began his monumental effort to depict the naked human form from childhood to old age in all its beauty and ugliness. The first section of the gigantic installation opened to the public in 1940, the year the Germans occupied Norway during World War Two. He and his workshop continued to be financed by the government despite the privations others suffered. The continued support is no surprise since he welcomed prominent Nazis to his studio and said he was “happy” to have German soldiers walk around the park because of their good discipline.
Times change: we joined crowds of local families and international tourists to pass through the wrought iron gates to stroll over a 320-foot long bridge spanning a lovely lake. The bridge is lined with 58 bronzes, each one evoking admiration of Vigeland’s creative genius along with laughs, frowns and gasps at his audacity. The sculptures in this area are in physique reminiscent of the Greek or Renaissance ideal most of us would admire – trim, lithe, in motion – as they depict human life in all its aspects from love and tenderness to violence against both adults and children.
it seemed to me the works in bronze would have been pleasing to the visiting occupiers when they contemplated the sculptures reflecting aesthetics of fascist art work with glorification of strength and fitness.
The bridge leads to a magnificent fountain surrounded by 60 bronze reliefs and sculptures of youthful humans intertwined with trees, some disturbing as they looked trapped and in danger of being subsumed into the tree like Daphne fleeing Apollo so magnificently depicted by Bernini in Rome; others seemed like lovers sheltered under the branches.
Beyond the fountain are the steps leading to the climax of the sculpture installation: The Monolith Plateau.
To reach it we passed by wrought-iron gates with human-figures outlined against the thirty-six over-sized granite groups that represent the circle of life. The figures are heavy, inert and impassive with vacant eyes in contrast to the bronzes. It is as if they awaited their preordained fate without protest. They reminded me of some of the fascist-era statues in Rome, although the Roman examples are not as bulky. One example is the set of four marble Naked Horsemen marking the four corners of the so-called Square Colosseum in the EUR area in Rome erected during the Mussolini era.
At least the Roman one shows some action.
The Vigeland sculptures do not concern themselves with the centerpiece of the Plateau – a 46-foot high writhing mass of 121 intertwined figures – men, women and children all struggling violently to reach the summit of the phallic monument. What are they reaching for I wondered? Heaven, power, light, their potential, safety during the hardships of the war years? Whatever Norwegians thought during a cold and hungry Christmastime 1944 when it was unveiled, it still has immense power today.
Are you one of those who turn away and let life take its course, or part of the struggle?
All photos except for the last are copyright Judith Works; the last photo is courtesy of Wikipedia.
Everyone loves a beach town in summer. Each town has a different personality, although all specialize in food, fun, sand, and sunburn. We enjoyed two wildly different experiences last summer, both very different from my hometown on the shores of Puget Sound north of Seattle.
The first was Skagen, strategically placed on the sandy tip of Denmark where the channels from the North Sea (Skagrrak) and the Kattegat, leading to the Baltic Sea, meet. It’s been a fishing and shipping town for some 600 years as the colorful fishing nets still attest.
There’s still a large fishing industry, but when summer comes, two million tourists flock to enjoy the sandy scenery along with high-end shopping, seafood, and The Skagens Museum. The summer solstice is celebrated by lighting The Bascule Light with its open fire basket. It looks like a medieval catapult but the design was used in several locations as a lighthouse around Denmark as early as the 16thCentury.
The town was most definitely off the beaten path until around 1870. Despite no harbor or railroad, young, less-established artists began to arrive after word got around at the Royal Academy of Art in Copenhagen that the locals would be happy to model for modest fees and that that the location was especially scenic and light filled. The resulting artists’ colony eventually attracted authors, composers, musicians and others involved in the arts.
We arrived late May, and contrary to the town known as the sunniest place in Denmark, it was overcast and cool. No matter. The town center was crowded with early holiday makers all shopping and eating, and except for the modern clothing, it was easy to imagine the old artists strolling the streets lined with picturesque red-roofed yellow houses surrounded by roses and hollyhocks straight out of a fairytale.
After Danish pastry (what else?) we set off window-shopping our way to the museum. If you are in the market for Georg Jensen silver, Skagen watches, Danish-design clothing and home décor, Scandinavian style, this is the place to be.
The museum was one of the loveliest I’ve ever had the pleasure of visiting – small rooms displaying a collection of work by the most well-known colony painters. Many of the paintings are in the light-filled Impressionist style and feature quiet domestic scenes. Others, darker, depict the harsh life of the local fishermen putting to sea in storms to earn their livelihood and sometimes not returning.
We lingered long in town and then returned to the easy life aboard our cruise ship, no need to work for our fish dinner.
We visited Skagen on purpose; we ended up in Blankenberge by chance. A terrific heatwave put an end to our plans to tour several of the World War One battlefields in the nearby Flanders Fields made so sadly famous by John McCrae’s poem beginning “In Flanders Fields, the poppies blow besides the crosses row on row.” Concerned that a day in the sun was a sure recipe for heatstroke, we cancelled the tour and headed for the small beach town, a place we’d never heard of but everyone else in this part of Belgium surely had. The roads were lined with parked cars for miles around and the town was overflowing with red-faced citizens.
The town is exactly what I’d pictured a holiday town on the North Sea: turn of the last century Belle Epoque buildings, loads of hotels including high rises lining the sea wall, trinket shops. And the packed, sweaty humanity. There was no place to sit in either sun or shade.
We were swept along the main drag under the burning sun toward a set of steps leading to a sea wall that then led down to a beach.
At the top of the steps was a display of the town’s history – its claim to fame is that the hapless Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, were regular guests in a special wing of the Grand Hotel des Bains et des Families pre-World War One. They were planning to travel again to Blankenberge after their last official engagement before the summer holiday: the famous visit to Sarajevo in 1914. We all know how that went when their assassination set off the War to End All Wars, the end of their empire as well as those of the Hohenzollern, Romanoff and Ottoman, and the uncounted death of millions.
We weren’t able to find a place to eat the Belgium national dish, Moules and Pomme Frites (mussels and French fries), but happily found a shop, the confiserie Moeder Babelutte showcasing their other famous product: Belgium chocolates along with pastries. Old Mother Babelutte’s photo hung above the sweets. And, oh the heaven, the shop was air conditioned! We prolonged our shopping by trying samples and of course bought several boxes of delights before the proprietor gently hinted it was time to go.
Back out in the heat, we found one more delight: The Renaissance church of Sint Antoniuskerk set in a leafy park.
The interior was cool, the light filtered, the artwork beautiful.
The ambience gave no indication of its fraught history: a medieval building later heavily damaged in the interminable Wars of Religion, and finally restored in 1642. The reddish-brick building looked as if it would easily fit in a landscape painting from the Dutch Golden Age (despite it being in the next country). It served as our place of respite until we could carry our precious chocolates back into the sweltering heat and find a bus back to the gigantic harbor of Zeebrugge.
The harbor is one of the largest ports in Europe and is filled with cargo ships moving through a labyrinth of canals and passages to berth or head out into the English Channel and onward to the world. Our white ship which was being fueled looked tiny among the behemoths piled high with containers, or filled with bulk cargo and new vehicles, but it had cool showers and ice-cold martinis. And, the temporary good life is always better with chocolate.
All photos copyright Judith Works except the bascule light which is from Wikipedia Commons courtesy Matthias Schalk.
A triptych of short stories about trains during the golden age of Eurail Passes, cheap travel, and no digital cameras.
It was Eastertime, the start of the European travel season, and the packed train from Paris to the French-Spanish border was hours behind schedule.
We missed our onward connection to Lisbon and ended up running to catch a local, the only train going in our direction until the following day. There was no time to buy provisions but we assumed that there would be a dining car. Hundreds of desperate travelers were pushing and shoving their way on board. We joined in. But every seat was full; the corridors were full; the fetid toilet rooms were full. Even the space where cars connected was filled with holiday-makers, mostly students on the loose.
But just as we were debating whether to endure a twelve-hour journey standing up or get off and hope something better would come along the following morning, a young man inexplicably came to our rescue. He motioned us to follow him. We squeezed up the aisle, stepping over lounging youths while he shoved two of his friends from a compartment. We gratefully took their places side by side on hard un-upholstered wooden seats with backs at an unforgiving 90-degree angle. Comfort was obviously not an amenity favored by the State railway at the time.
We nodded to the others in the six-person compartment. There were two young German women with black patent-leather suitcases across from us. They’d been the object of the ejected and now dejected young men’s attention. They leaned near the compartment’s open door in hopes the women would talk to them. They didn’t. A sallow and thin middle-aged Portuguese woman huddled in the corner by the window. She sat knee to knee across from a macho guy with a big gut and, we were soon to find out, an ego to match. My husband sat next to him and I had the seat by the door. Our virtuous rescuer joined his friends nearby.
The train jerked and jounced for hours toward the Spanish-Portuguese border where we halted to allow customs agents to inspect our documents. They pushed their way down the aisle shouting “passaporte.” Behind trailed sturdy ruddy-faced young women in long skirts, hand-knit sweaters, and kerchiefs, selling packets of sugar-coated almonds. When both groups had completed their work, the train slowly chugged off again on the interminable trip. As we passed deserted dimly-lit blue and white-tiled rural train stations, macho guy began a never-ending monologue. I don’t know much Portuguese, but between my fractured French and sloppy Spanish it wasn’t hard to understand much of the narrative which involved his exploits against the “natives” in the former Portuguese colony of Angola. With every new tale the Portuguese woman, the unwilling object of his stories, shrunk further back into her seat.
As an antidote, we fell into conversation with the Germans, who spoke English. By this time we had learned there was no bar or restaurant car. Even if there had been food available there was no way we could have climbed over the bodies filling every inch of space. Our almonds were long gone. The young women opened their cases to take out apples and water. We tried not to stare at their snacks, but in a second act of the kindness of strangers, they offered to share. We gratefully sipped and munched while discussing the novel they were reading: Murder on the Orient Express. Meanwhile macho guy continued to have the cowering woman across from him pinned in the corner with his words. Ah, murder – it began to sound like an excellent solution to shut him up
Twelve hours later we arrived in rainy Lisbon, hungry and sleep deprived. One of the young women called a friend who had a pension near the center of the city and at last we fell into bed, hoping to sleep for days. Never again would we travel without food and water. And earplugs.
Tower of Belem in Lisbon
* * *
A sturdy and sunburned young soldier paced back and forth by the entrance to our carriage watching passengers boarding the night train from Madrid to Granada. When we found our compartment there was only one other occupant, an ancient woman dressed in black from head to toe. She held a bird cage covered with a black scarf. She peered at us with olive-black eyes deeply set into a wrinkled face that gave evidence of a long and hard life. We smiled. The conductor blew a whistle and slammed the carriage door shut. We anticipated a blissful trip with only the silent granny hunched by the window. But, as the train began to move, the compartment door slid open and the same soldier we had seen outside took a seat next to the old woman. They greeted each other with hugs and kisses.
The excitement about the journey and the arrival of the young man set the woman’s tongue in motion. After she caught our attention, she gestured toward the soldier, telling us he was her grandson. He looked fondly at his abuela. Next came a story about the bird cage. Her talk had become so rapid that I could not follow. Her earnest efforts to tell us about the cage were futile until she lifted the cover to show us two canaries, fluttering in distress. She pointed at us and then pointed at them. Then she placed the cage on the seat next to her grandson and held out her two forefingers, crossed.
My God, I thought, she’s cursing us. But no, she was nodding and smiling, and I finally caught the words for husband and wife. Now we understood: the canaries were a pair like us. We’d been accepted, maybe graced in her eyes.
Meanwhile the soldier prepared for the long ride by taking off his boots and propping his feet up on the vacant seat next to me. The blessing turned into a curse when the stench from his feet filled the compartment. He must not have washed since he was born. He, grandma and the canaries drifted off to sleep; the birds with heads under their wings to avoid the smell. We looked at each other trying to decide whether to stand in the corridor all night or get out the bottle of wine we’d brought along and find solace in liquid form. We settled for the latter as the train wheels hypnotically clacked over the sleepers bearing us to Granada for Holy Week.
Holy Week parade
* * *
After a stay in Tangier we made our way to the nearby Spanish enclave of Ceuta where we embarked on a ferry back to Algeciras. The night train to Madrid, with our reserved window seats facing each other, was waiting near the dock.
We settled in before our seatmates filed into the compartment: four men. The first looked like a seedy spy in his rumpled white suit. He sat on the corridor side, intent on thumbing through girlie magazines, ignoring his seatmates. The other three were startling. The obvious leader of the pack was a huge pockmarked weatherworn man who looked like a thug; the other two were slightly younger and smaller but looked just as tough. The big boss sat next to me and smiled, flashing a mouthful of gold teeth. His henchmen hoisted cheap plastic bags of umbrellas, brandy, sausages and wheels of cheese on the rack above them and us and stuffed more under their seats.
As the train slowly gathered speed in its climb through the cold mountains of an Andalusian spring, the Three Musketeers dragged out their dinner. A knife passed from hand to hand to slice through a wedge of cheese and the sausages. In between eating, they passed a bottle of rotgut brandy back and forth, never allowing the bottle to touch their lips. The capo offered us a swig but we politely declined. The brandy fumes and essence of garlic sausages filled the close air.
I had my nose in a book but could not resist glancing at the threesome between paragraphs. They looked menacing, unpredictable. As one bottle was emptied and another uncorked, they became ever more voluble. My husband and I began to exchange looks of alarm. Would he have to defend my honor? Could there be Murder on the Algeciras-Madrid Express?
Eventually the bottles were drained and the meal finished. The men fell asleep, snoring loudly. The empties rolled back and forth on the floor as the train swayed toward our destination. In the middle of the night I woke up needing to use the toilet. I was preparing to attempt squeezing by when the boss awoke. He poked the others and told them to stand up for the lady. They obediently stood as I left, and again as I returned. Gentlemen, after all
It was cold by the window and the heating system didn’t work. I tried to curl up to get warm, pulling a jacket over me. The next thing I knew it was morning and I was snuggled up to the big guy, absorbing his pungent heat.
As the train neared Atocha Station, the capo pulled out his identification to show us: He and his pals were railway workers who had earned passes for the excursion to Ceuta. They’d purchased the food, brandy and umbrellas in a duty-free shoppers’ paradise to resell what remained of it in Madrid. The train pulled to a halt and the men gathered their loot and hustled out. Only the empty bottles and the lingering aroma remained in the compartment to remind us of the journey.
* * *
When it was time to take the night train from Madrid to Paris for the flight home, we reserved a private sleeping compartment. So quiet, so comfortable, so colorless. We moved to Rome a few years later.
all photos public domain or Creative Commons including the Belem Tower photo taken by Alvergaspar.
One of the major reasons to visit Norway is to see the magnificent fjords, sea arms that stretch far into the landscape. One of the most spectacular is Lysefjorden, not far from Stravanger, a city between Bergen and Oslo, the capital. The 26-mile long fjord with waters 1600 feet deep is hemmed in by cliffs rising to 3000 feet. It’s no wonder that Victor Hugo used it as a setting in his 1886 novel, Toilers of the Sea, where he wrote that “Lyse-Fjord is the most terrible of all the gut rocks of the ocean.”
Our visit was far more mundane—it’s not every day that one finds three domestic goats on a almost vertical rocky hillside with no visible farm buildings. How they got to this remote spot on the fjord and where they went during the fierce winter will always be a mystery to me. (Helicopter?) Nevertheless, they appeared to be having a great summer holiday. One was all milk chocolate colored, another milk white with a chocolate head, and the last one looked as though the front half had been dipped in chocolate.
The captain slowed the engine and a crew member lowered a ramp. She then picked up a bag of bread and walked to the goats who pushed and shoved to get the snack as we, the passengers clustered to take photos. Payment to their participation in the photo-op finished, the goats returned to their rocky perch and we continued up the narrow sea-arm to view waterfalls, villages, pirates’ hideouts, and the famous Pulpit Rock rising straight up 1982 feet from the saltwater. Along with serving as a spectacular viewpoint for hikers, the rock is used for BASE jumping—a terrifying thought.
The city of Stavanger makes its living from provisioning the North Sea’s oil drilling industry, and like everywhere scenic, tourists. We skipped the architecturally-innovative oil museum in favor of a museum honoring another ocean resource: sardines. The canning industry, with 70 processing plants in use from about 1880 to the mid-1950s, has long passed its heyday but the museum was one of the cleverest we’ve visited: installed in the old and nicely-named Venus Cannery, it takes a visitor through the process complete with movies from around World War One.
The machinery to make and seal cans still functions and the tin samples of fish sizes are laid out to show how the workers learned to sort. The office with its old typewriter stands ready to send out another invoice to somewhere in the world as demonstrated by the display of sardine can labels.
We arrived on a day when the smoking ovens with low-burning fires were lit over rows of sardines. The man tending the fire handed me one of the fish. Delicious!
Of course, there’s a gift shop. We filled a shopping bag with a couple of cans of King Oscar sardines, and an apron now in use by my chef —aka husband. It’s not everywhere that one’s chef wears an apron with a sardine can emblazoned on the front.
It was pleasant to stroll the old town where flowers flourish in the long summer days, before a visit to the cathedral, a Romanesque structure dating from 1125 later remodeled with Gothic touches.
The cathedral is the largest cathedral in Norway. The stained-glass windows had been removed for restoration but we were fascinated by the unusual plaques apparently commissioned to honor the stiffly-starched pious and wealthy 17thcentury families associated with the church. The ruff on one woman looked like a crumb-catcher although I couldn’t see how she would actually have been able to eat.
The severity of the sober families was a complete contrast to the wildly-colored pulpit with primary-colored Biblical scenes in folk-art styles.
After, we browsed a small open market, considered whether we should buy a reindeer pelt, an inevitable troll, or sample unusual food choices before settling for a local Norwegian beer, comparing the feet on the glass to our own tired toes.
Bergen, Norway, has a reputation for rain. Lots of rain: 83 inches over 230 days each year. But the weather gods smiled when were there. Located on the southerly portion of Norway’s fiord-fringedcoast, the city originally gained prominence as part of the Hanseatic League, a commercial and defensive confederation of merchant guilds and market towns fromthe late 1100s until the mid-1600s. Now it’s a busy and beautiful university city.
The old traders’ warehouses divided by narrow alleys line the waterfront. Instead of dried cod, they are now designated UNESCO heritage sites and are a magnet for tourists looking for trinkets like trolls, silver jewelry, weirdly-named snacks,
and high-end clothing like the divinely-inspired but devilishly-expensive Oleana sweaters. (There was no doubt I’d succumb to their allure. My indulgent husband sighed but gamely produced his credit card.)
These cute children’s styles from another company caught my eye: Three little Norwegians ready for school in winter.
But Bergen is also home to two outstanding cultural treasures, the real object of our visit: The composer Edvard Greig’s lovely summer home, and an ancient stave church.
The composer is one of my favorites for his Peer Gynt Suite and the lovely Wedding Day at Troldhaugen expressing Norwegian nationalism among many other pieces. His home at Troldhaugen was built in 1885 near the shore of Nordås Lake, a suburb of Bergen. He and his wife lived in this idyllic location for 22 summers until he died in 1907, some say of overwork. Troldhaugen became a museum in 1928 and the complex set in lovely gardens now includes Grieg’s villa, the composer’s hut by the lake shore, the couple’s grave site as well as a café, modern museum building and Troldsalen, a chamber music hall seating 200 people.
The house, called The Villa, is surprisingly modest for an owner of such international fame. The exterior has the typical Victorian gingerbread elements, and like so many pictures I’ve seen of Scandinavian homes, this one had the typical geranium blooming in a window.
Like all tourist areas now, it was crowded and we had to wait our turn to enter the home.
One whole room is now devoted to a display of Greig’s manuscripts and collection of awards.
It was easy to imagine musical afternoons in the living room with the kettle steaming and friends like the famous virtuoso violinist Ole Bull gathered to hear his latest composition.
After the tour, we wandered down the steep hill to peer in the windows of the tiny cabin where Grieg worked accompanied only by birdsong and lapping lake waters. The building contains a piano, stove, desk, and couch—all he needed. I pictured him taking a break on the sofa awaiting inspiration for the next movement of his latest composition.
On the way out of the complex, we joined others to dispose of the ubiquitous stickers stuck to their clothes to remind them what group they had been in (and probably annoying the maintenance workers).
Our heads and hearts filled with music as we moved backward in time to visit the reconstructed Fantoft Stave Church originally built when Norway was discarding the Norse gods in favor of Christianity. A stavechurch is a medievalwooden structure, once common in north-western Europe. The name derives from the building’s structure of post and lintel construction, a type of timber framing where the load-bearing pine posts are called stav in modern Norwegian. There were once around two thousand such churches, but now only a few remain, some much larger than the one we visited which must have served a small congregation.The church was originally built around the year 1150 in a village near the end of a fjord north of Bergan. When a new church was built in 1879, the wooden building was moved to its current location.
The church is set in a wooded area that lends a mystical air with mossy ground snaked with tree roots.
The ancient rough-hewn stone cross stands on a hillock nearby looking like it was out of Ingmar Bergman’s medieval morality tale, Seventh Seal.
Adding to the surreal atmosphere, the church’s roofline was topped by stylized Norse dragons spouting fire to protect the building. However, the dragons were ineffective when, after standing for over 800 years, ironically the building was destroyed by arson. Reconstruction, completed in 1997, took six years.
The interior is a complete contrast to the ornamented exterior: plain pine wood, simple altar and a carving of a dragon that seemed to me to be of Celtic design near the entrance.
The small church and the surrounding woods are a place of contemplation in this troubled world and a reminder the past cannot and should not be erased.
The wrinkled sea shining in the damp silvery dawn made me think of dragons’ skin and old Norse gods as the ship glided slowly into the harbor at Torshavn. The sun pierced dark clouds to illuminate buildings and harbor.
I imagined the characters from Norse myths: Grendel, Beowulf, Thor, Odin, and all the rest were hiding somewhere in the hills overlooking the harbor.
Torshavn is the capital of the Faroe Islands, a self-governing country within the Kingdom of Denmark (which also includes Greenland). A collection of eighteen islands rising abruptly out of the North Sea in the middle of a stormy triangle made up of Norway, Iceland, and Scotland, it’s low in population but high on atmosphere with mists, waterfalls spilling down the cliffs, sheep in green pastures, and sod-roofed homes. Although Celtic monks arrived in the 600s, it was the Norsemen in their dragon-prowed long ships who settled the country around AD 825. The inhabitants have made their living mostly from fishing ever since. And everywhere there are monuments to the enormous death toll arising from venturing into the treacherous waters.
I’d enjoyed a previous visit to the Faroes and was delighted to take another look at Torshavn (Thor’s Harbor) and to explore a different area of the country—this time concentrating on the largest island, Streymoy, where Torshavn is located.
The capital is a combination of modern glass-sided buildings, and sturdy old sod-roofed houses jumbled together, some dating from the 1500s.
It was obvious that beyond fishing, the tourism industry is growing rapidly, with birdwatchers, hikers, and other adventure tourists. Several four- and five-star hotels are under construction in Torshavn, and for those who want the very best and can afford to pay, there is a Michelin two-starred restaurant, KOKS, on the nearby island of Vagar serving such traditional foods as fermented lamb, wind-dried and air-salted, along with high-concept presentations of bounty from the sea.
Tradition is much in evidence. I strolled through the oldest part of town, stopping to watch a man in old-style clothing re-sod his roof while his helper clad modern safety-orange helped lift the heavy squares of dirt and grass.
The Faroese language is a variant of Old Norse and, judging by the music stores and ads for performances, very much a living language. With the exception of Viking heavy metal, most of the music videos I’ve watched seem melancholy and feature the weather. Besides the music stores, the main shopping area has a shop with traditional clothing, a bookstore with books in Faroese, and sweater shops common to all Scandinavian countries for good reason. With a cool, wet, and windy climate combined with a long dark winter, knitting is a natural pastime although the islands’ sheep are grown only for meat, the wool unsuitable for craft work.
The landscape on our way north was mystical in keeping with the ancient myths. Clouds rose and fell, fields of grass bent in the breeze, showers fed the eternal waterfalls, sheep grazed, orange-billed Oystercatchers poked along the fjord shorelines.
Village churches and farmhouses with their wild-flower-covered roofs looked as if they had always been there.
But when I turned my attention to the present, it was easy to see what a wealthy country it is. The houses are perfectly kept, the cars are new, the roads are perfect and the closer islands are connected by bridges or underwater tunnels. The infrastructure is paid for with high income taxes like other Scandinavian countries. The people I talked to were happy with the arrangement. With good infrastructure, free schools, medical care and old-age support, they said they got their money’s worth.
The end of the journey was the settlement of Saksun, in an enchanted valley with a lacy waterfall spilling down a slope, an old barn built of stone, and a sod-roofed church facing the fjord.
It was if we’d stepped into a magical scene from time immemorial.
In keeping with the atmosphere, I visited a nearby farmhouse, abandoned at the beginning of the 20thcentury and now a museum. The main building of stone and wood was constructed around 1820, although an older building once occupied the space. Within its thick walls was a smoke-room, cow-barn, henhouse, potato shed, as well as the living quarters where the occupants raised their family, sheltered the village priest when he passed by, ate their simple meals out of wooden bowls balanced on their laps, and no doubt, watched their children suffer with no medical care. How hard it must have been in the isolated spot when the long summer days turned to long dark winters.
As I enjoyed coffee and home-made waffles in the tiny kitchen flooded with summer sunlight, I couldn’t help but wonder if the family told stories of the old times when dragons appeared in swirling mist shrouding the farmstead. Then, after the cows in the stall were settled and evening prayers were done, the wick on the oil lantern was trimmed and the family slipped into beds built into niches to await another day of toil.
Sometimes a respite from all the jangles of our lives—the clicking, beeping, dinging, and talking heads—is necessary to preserve our sanity. Sometimes when we don’t know who to believe or even why, it’s a balm to mentally return to a time when certainty ruled people’s lives. A time when few expected a change in their status; when having a “brand” was not an objective. A medieval world most of us would find hard and confining but tempered by a close relationship with the divine and a secure place in the social order.
A first stop to contemplate that medieval world on a day out of London was Salisbury Cathedral. Some 90 miles west of London, the cathedral is most famous for its ever-so-slightly skewed spire, at 404 feet, the tallest in Great Britain. The cathedral sits in the middle of an immense greensward in the middle of the town of the same name. Because of its easy access from London and nearness to Stonehenge, it has a heavy influx of tourists.
As we approached the entrance, the magnitude of the attraction was evident with lines of tour buses in a parking lot disgorging passengers. We joined the crowd to enter a medieval world from floor to vaulting.
The foundation stone was laid in 1220 and consecrated in 1258 but the cathedral isn’t far from the ruins of an Iron Age settlement, later Roman fort and then a Norman town known as Old Sarum where an earlier cathedral once stood. The stones of that cathedral were used to build an English Gothic architectural wonder where we stood among the others gazing upward at the vaulting supporting the building. Most extraordinary are the curving scissors arches leaping into the air where the nave and arms meet to form the traditional shape of a cross. The mason, Master Nicholas of Ely, who designed and oversaw the workers didn’t need computer programs – his architectural vision and skill was in his brilliant mind and hands.
I want to say I was moved by our visit, but in truth, there were so many people I was just another gaping tourist and that so-called thin space where heaven and earth are separated by only three feet wasn’t in evidence. And so, after admiring the medieval clock still working since 1386, and shuffling along with others lined up to glimpse the copy of the Magna Carta (one of four in existence), it was a relief to enjoy an early lunch in an old mill where swans leisurely paddled and a view of the distant cathedral echoed one of John Constable’s Romantic 18th century paintings.
The discussion over a sandwich of crusty country bread filled with cheddar and diving Wiltshire ham washed down with local ale, centered on what to see next. Stonehenge is jammed, Avebury sounded interesting, but where I’d long to go for years was Wells. Our driver blanched when he thought I said Wales but after convincing him that wasn’t the case, we headed cross country to the small town set in the rolling Mendip hills deep in Somerset. And there I found my transcendent experience: The thin space where sacred and profane meet.
The small town of Wells is without railroad or freeway connections and therefore lacks day-trippers. It exudes a sense of peace because the center of life is the magnificent Gothic cathedral. The first known settlement was around a holy well in Late Roman times: 400 – 600 AD, a time when the Roman Empire had collapsed and England was a conglomeration of small Saxon kingdoms. The King of Wessex gave land for a church to a bishop in 705. The small church became a cathedral in 909. The foundation for the current masterpiece, the first Gothic-style church with its pointed arches and abundance of stained-glass windows in England, was laid in 1175 but the building wasn’t completed until 1508, a testament to the power of faith to persevere.
Visitors were few and quiet allowing us to wander at will and to contemplate the structure in a hushed atmosphere. Time stood still, or even ran backward. The entrance to the nave made me think that the ribbing on the ceiling was like looking into the insides of a fish or whale—a view Jonah might have seen. But again, it was the scissors arches that captured my awe. How could have William Joy, the master mason in 1338, known that to brace the central tower he needed to build magnificent swoops of stone on three sides of each of the four pillars? They were a divine inspiration.
Time slowed as we wandered the vast space, contemplating the beautiful Nave, Lady Chapel, Cloisters, and the substantial area behind the main altar called the Quire and Retroquire. The lower part of the beautiful windows are a simple jumble of glass – the remnants of the biblical scenes smashed in a time of religious strife in the 17th century.
But we returned repeatedly to the arches to wonder at their perfection and to imagine the candle-lit processions with Choristers chanting and singing as they still do.
All was silent as I imagined Evensong in my mind’s eye.
We climbed a set of stairs to enter the octagonal Chapter House.
Around the sides are seats where the Canons, who managed the church and its business affairs, sat under their name; their assistants, the Vicars, sat at their feet. In the center of the room is a pillar with 32 vaulted ribs springing from it as if it were a fountain.
The windows are mostly clear glass as the originals were smashed in the 17thcentury as they had been in the main church.We crept carefully down the stairs that that resembled a gush of cascading water imagining how many Canons and Vicars must have lost their balance and fallen to their deaths as they descended in flickering candlelight.
We paused for reflection in an ancient graveyard
before strolling in the lovely quintessentially English Vicar’s Close, a stone-paved street connected to the church by an overpass called the Chain Bridge. The street is lined with about twenty lovely homes and gardens, originally built in 1348, and still occupied by fortunate cathedral staff such as the Organist and choir master. Although I have no doubt the interiors of the homes are modern and have high-speed internet, the exterior of the Close is an English dream encapsulating everything magical about English villages.
Too soon, it was time to leave.
We headed east back to London, stopping along the way to allow a herd of cows heading for their own barn. Traffic stops at milking time in the countryside. But as we approached London the present day took over and the conversation returned to the subject on everyone’s mind: Brexit and what the future held.
All photos except that of Constable painting copyright Judith Works Constable painting from Wikipedia, pubic domain
To be honest, I didn’t actually meet anyone in person but through the 1912 edition of Baedeker’s Palestine and Syria travel guide, a wonderful Christmas gift. I love old guides that reveal so much about conditions as seen through the eyes of whomever contributed to the text and what they thought would be important to the inexperienced traveler who had a case of wanderlust.
The red-covered Baedekers were known to be reliable and the traveler wouldn’t want to be without one – remember Lucy Honeychurch who was lost in Santa Croce without her Baedeker in “Room with a View”? I do have the very one Lucy carried (or at least a copy of Central Italy which covers Florence and Rome). Both guides were bought from the well-named Insatiables bookstore in Port Townsend, WA.
According to the flyleaf for the Palestine and Syria book, my fellow traveler was someone named D.P. Wetherald. I don’t know if it was a he or one of the intrepid British women like Gertrude Bell who tramped all over the area before World War I and drew the boundaries of the countries in the Middle East after the war. Whoever it was, bought the book in Cairo on March 7, 1914, just six months before the world turned upside down and the subsequent fall of the Ottoman empire that ruled the area. The guide covers what are now Lebanon, Syria, Israel, and Jordan.
With the exception of Lebanon and Syria, where we’d planned to go just before the uprising, we’ve had the good fortune to visit most of the major sites described in the book. Most recently, we spent time in Acre as did Mr. or Ms. Wetherald.
My ghostly fellow traveler must have had a special sentiment about Acre because I found a tiny dried wildflower pressed into the page containing a map of the area which has been settled since time immemorial.
It was Canaanite before waves of invaders moved in: the Phoenicians and Persians, the Greeks and Romans. It was in Acre that Herod received Emperor Augustus in 30 BC. The Roman Empire declined and other groups like the Seleucids, the Byzantines, and Ommayyad caliphs took over in a dizzying mash-up of history.
The port served as the gateway to the Holy Land during the Crusades where in 1104 the Knights of St. John conquered the city and built a gigantic castle for their headquarters. The city was popular with such travelers as St. Francis, a Holy Roman Emperor, and a king of France. Richard the Lion-Hearted saved the city from Saladin only to lose it again. The Crusader’s ever-shrinking kingdom finally came to an end in 1291. The castle was later occupied by assorted Ottoman pashas, but withstood Napoleon’s siege. It changed hands repeatedly again until 1948 when the Israeli’s took possession from the British who grabbed it in 1918, only four years after my traveler, Wetherald, visited.
My husband and I visited Acre in October. Wetherald visited March 26, 1914 according to a pencil notation. The guidebook considered Acre to be a minor excursion from Haifa, usually accomplished by boat because of the bad roads. According to the book, while the bazaar-market still presents a lively scene, the interior of the large mosque was “tasteless,” and the Ottoman military hospital “is said to have been once the residence of the Knights of St. John.”
That was then. Now the town, designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, is bustling with tourists coming to walk the picturesque old lanes, peer into caravanserais to imagine merchants off-loading their pack animals after the long trek on the Silk Road, dine by the blue sea and venture into the restored Crusader fortress, much of which is underground, dimly lit, and definitely not for those with fear of confined spaces or the dark. Our guide led us ever deeper through beautifully-restored gigantic halls that served as refectory, hospital, a storeroom for the lucrative sugar trade, and one for unfortunate prisoners.
We emerged into the sun and modernity, blinking our eyes before moving into the shade of the souk. The narrow street was lined with shops filled with typical goods found in such busy markets in this part of the world: fresh fish, olives, fragrant spices, sweets, clothing, along with the inevitable buckets, brooms, and detergent.
A door at the end of the street was the entrance to what is called the Templar Tunnel where Crusaders once clanked along in their heavy armor on military business and laborers carted cones or loaves of sugar or supplies to and from the port to the castle. The tunnel is narrow and damp, and the knights must have been short because even I at just over five feet had to bend down in many sections.
We returned to brilliant sunlight at the Old Town, once one of the most important in the Eastern Mediterranean but now home to fishing and pleasure craft.
We lingered by the old sea walls watching the timeless scene and contemplating a sweet message daubed on a wall: a heart and Ali +Hlq.
And on the way back to the bus we saw more evidence of “sweet”:
The following day, we were presented with a graphic reminder that love doesn’t conquer all. We arrived at Caesarea to a scene combining the reality of modern times with the ancient—soldiers eyeing a display of the latest missiles.
Although the settlement was ancient, historical records begin in 22 BC, when King Herod the Great began to build up the town and port. He named it after Augustus Caesar and oversaw the construction of a temple dedicated to Augustus, a theater, a hippodrome and the famous aqueduct. The governors of Judea made it their home town when the area became a Roman province. Among the governors was the infamous Pontius Pilate. Saints Paul and Peter, among many other early Christians, resided here for various periods of time. Arabs conquered the town but were pushed out by Crusaders five hundred years later. They, in turn, only hung on for twenty-one years before being swept away themselves. But one interesting side note remains: the town seems to be where the story of the Holy Grail began. When King Baldwin took the town on May 17th 1101, he seized an object from a ruined Byzantine cathedral. According to William of Tyre, the chronicler of the First Crusade, it was a round dish carved out of an enormous emerald used during the Last Supper. Baldwin was forced to give it to the Genoese in payment for the loan of a fleet. They took it to Genoa where it is displayed in the cathedral of San Lorenzo. Later, it was found to be Roman glass and is one of many contenders for the true chalice. Whatever the true story of the Grail is, the chronicler ignited the stories, legends, and quests that continue to this day.
The city unfortunately didn’t enjoy the same notoriety and gradually sank into the sand and sea. My traveler’s guidebook didn’t think much of it, saying it was a site that could only be reached by carriage in dry weather, and if you happened to be stuck, “Bosnians have been settled here since 1884 and can supply rough nightquarters in case of need.” The book also advised that the destruction carried out after the Crusaders left was still on-going by locals needing building materials.
We walked over ancient white marble in the blazing sun, trying to imagine the scene first in Roman times when crowds cheered chariot races as in the old film “Ben Hur.”
The heat from sky and marble forced us to retreat under a palm tree for a cool drink before we trekked through a dusty parking lot to take a close look at the aqueduct, partially buried in sand. It supplied water for 1200 years but was dry by the time the Crusaders showed up.
Now, it’s a sad remnant of a once-important city, a structure that now comes from nowhere and leads nowhere, only attractive to tourists and military activity.
Another day passed in the ever-changing, never-changing, always thought-provoking Middle East. Middle-east if you live in the West, the center of the world if you’re a resident.
All photos by author except photo of “Holy Chalice” which is from Wikipedia CC, photo by Sylvain Ballet, 19 August 2009