Vietnam: Hanoi

Motorbikes, honking horns, and amazing street food — these will forever be associated with Hanoi for me.

After about 24 hours of travel, Bryn and I arrived at the hotel that had been recommended to us by a Svanholm friend. We cleaned up and ventured out.

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When it came time to cross a street, we remembered the advice we had been given and just went for it, letting the bikes avoid us, instead of vice versa. The first few times, I was a bit anxious, but my confidence increased with each successful crossing.

Hoan Kiem Lake offers a bit of tranquility amidst the chaos, and we found our way there several times during our stay.

Hoan Kiem Lake

Early on, we stumbled across a stand selling freshly “squeezed” sugar cane juice. Delicious and only 50 cents!

Making sugar cane juice (10,000 dong = $0.50)

It was so good that motorbikes stopped for takeaway.

Juice to go

We roamed the streets, finding our way to the Cathedral and various temples.

St. Joseph's Cathedral

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Behind the cathedral was this bas-relief mural that on closer inspection was getting some help from Mother Nature.

Bas relief on wall behind St. Joseph's Cathedral

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In spite of our long journey, we had enough energy to attend a performance at the Water Puppet Theater, which included live traditional music.

Muscians at Water Puppet Theater

Water Puppet Theater

Water Puppet Theater

Hanoi’s street scene is incredibly lively 24/7. There is always something to see. We enjoyed watching men playing a checkers-like game.

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Street food in Hanoi is both delicious and cheap. The country has an abundance of fresh fruits, vegetables and herbs and the food benefits from that abundance. Most of our meals were eaten while seated on plastic chairs or stools as those below.

Street food

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Hanoi is Vietnam’s capital and second largest city, with about 7 million people. The intensity of the city is softened by the number of boulevard trees. There are trees and shade on nearly every street.

Loved this tree

Most of the traditional buildings in Hanoi are tall and skinny, dating back to a tax policy that was related to street frontage.

Typical skinny architecture

We visited a large, indoor shopping complex that was overwhelming with its volume of products and the consumerism that implied.

Doan Xuan market

Here is a stall with beautiful silk fabrics:

Silk for sale at the Doan Xuan market

Here is another one with the facemasks that many motorbike riders wear:

Facemasks for sale

And here are some vendors, taking it easy in the heat.

Doan Xuan market

One evening, we found ourselves at Long Bien Bridge. It called to us and we had to walk over it.

Long Bien bridge

Long Bien bridge

From the bridge we got a view of pineapple trucks being unloaded.

View from Long Bien bridge - unloading pineapples

As we walked out further, we saw some garden plots.

View from Long Bien bridge

View from Long Bien bridge

The sun set and fishermen tried their luck in the Red River.

Sunset from Long Bien bridge

View from Long Bien bridge

Walking back to our hotel, we passed the active Night Market.

Hanoi night market

And, even at night, the motorbikes raced by.

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The Temple of Literature was another interesting stop along our way. It is a temple of Confucius and includes Vietnam’s first national university.

Temple of Literature

Temple of Literature

Temple of Literature

Temple of Literature

We also visited the “Hanoi Hilton”, where John McCain and other American pilots were held during the Vietnam War (the Vietnamese call that same war the American War — it was a bit of a surprise the first time I heard it, but it makes sense).

"Hanoi Hilton"

Here is a photo of John McCain’s uniform and parachute:

John McCain's gear at the "Hanoi Hilton"

Most of the former prison is dedicated to telling the story of the French internment and torture of Vietnamese revolutionaries.

"Hanoi Hilton"

The Women’s Museum was also VERY interesting. One can learn about women’s roles and customs in the ethnic minority communities, as well as the role women played in the American War.

Women's Museum

Women's Museum

Did I mention motorbikes yet? They are ubiquitious and it’s startling to see how many people and how much stuff can fit upon them.

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They even sleep on their motorbikes!

People LIVE on their scooters!

One does see an occasional bicycle, too.

Chickens for sale

Two final scenes from the street and I’ll be done with this post.

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Next stop: SAPA!

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Istanbul – Part Five: City Life

I’m calling this final post on Istanbul “City Life” as a way to include whatever didn’t fit in the four previous topical posts. It will likely end up being a bit of a mish-mash, but I hope it is worth a read nonetheless.

Istanbul is a bit of a mish-mash itself, located partly in Europe and partly in Asia, with its history of Roman domination, followed by the conquering Ottomans, followed by its founding as a republic. The evidence of old Constantinople is present in the Valens Aqueduct, which was completed in the late 4th century AD and still standing.

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The influence of the Ottomans is evident in the multitude of mosques that dominate the city skyline.

Blue Mosque

Atatürk is still revered as the founder of the Turkish republic. On this monument in Taksim Square, Atatürk is shown on one side as a general leading a revolution and on the other side as a statesman leading a republic.

Atatürk the general

Atatürk the statesman

The sultans also left behind major palaces. Below is Dolmabahçe Palace, a lavish structure built around 1850. Photos were not allowed inside, or I would share with you the world’s largest crystal chandelier and an unbelievable crystal staircase.

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Dolmabahçe Palace:   Imperial Gate

Atatürk spent the last days of his medical treatment in the palace as his health deteriorated. He died at 9:05 a.m. on November 10, 1938, in a bedroom that is now part of the palace museum. All the clocks in the palace were stopped and set to 9:05 after his death.

Istanbul is home to about 14 million people in its 2,063 square miles (5,343 sq.km.) and there are crowds everywhere. From the bustling, commercial Istikal street…

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…to the side streets in the historic quarter.

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The Princes Islands, nine islands located 20 km away in the Sea of Marmara, are a popular getaway destination for Istanbul’s urban dwellers. My daughter Bryn and I went on a day trip to Heybeliada, one of the islands, and were reminded a bit of our trip to Michigan’s Mackinac Island last year (although there were no fudge shops). Vehicular traffic is limited on Heybeliada and horse-drawn carriages dominate.

No cars allowed on the Princes' Islands

No cars allowed on the Princes' Islands

We got off the ferry boat and wandered around town for a while, watching a youthful soccer game and admiring the boats in the harbor.

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We hiked up to a posh hotel and back, appreciating typical Turkish architecture along our way.

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Eventually I decided we should take a carriage ride in order to see the entire the island and we passed through peaceful forests and by remote beaches.

A pony ride!

Another day we took our host’s advice and took a bus to the northern part of the city and then hiked up to the Pierre Loti cafe with its spectacular views over the Golden Horn and the city. Named after a French novelist who frequented the area, the cafe is perched just above a cemetery where many important Ottomans are reportedly buried.

Pierre Loti Cafe: on top of Eyüp cemetery named after a French novelist

Back in town, it was typical to see men hauling heavy loads using various contraptions such as the one below. As I’ve mentioned the city has many hills and I did not envy the men (and boys) I saw employed by this activity.

Hauler for hire

There was also an abundance of cats in the city. Some street dogs, but mostly street cats. They were everywhere and for the most part seemed content and well fed.

Cat snoozing at Süleymaniye Mosque

Istanbul also had some interesting store window displays. These two mannequins caught my eye.

Mannequin DJ

Crazy store mannequin

Two “must-see’s” in Istanbul are the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Bazaar. The Grand Bazaar is one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world, with 61 covered streets and over 3,000 shops. One can buy anything from jewelry to carpets to ceramics to turkish delight to clothes to …

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The Spice Bazaar is smaller than the Grand Bazaar, although still enormous, with 88 vaulted rooms. One can buy anything from saffron to curry to cumin to apple tea, to kebab spice mix to …

Spice market

Spice market w/ Turkish coffee sets

The area just outside the Spice Bazaar is also an exciting market area, frequented mostly by locals.

Bazaar outside Rüstem Paşa Mosque

These areas look quite different at night, however. Bryn and I got a bit turned around one evening, trying to find our way to a hamami, or Turkish bath, and this is what we experienced.

Market area at night

We eventually found our way to the hamami and totally enjoyed it. No photos, however, you’ll just have to imagine a lot of mostly naked, soaped up women.

I do have photos from another very Turkish experience: a hookah cafe. Bryn really wanted to sample this piece of local culture, so my friend Sungur took us to one. We tried apple-flavored tobacco, apple tea and soaked in the ambiance.

Hot coals for the hookah

Bryn smoking apple-flavored tobacco

Even babies were welcome.

Baby at the Hookah cafe

One of the coolest places we went was the Basilica Cistern, the largest of several hundred underground cisterns and built in the 6th century during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I. This cathedral-size cistern is an underground chamber approximately 450 feet (138 m) by 210 feet (64 m) – capable of holding 2.8 million cubic feet (80,000 cubic meters) of water. The ceiling is supported by a forest of 336 marble columns, each 30 feet (9 m) high, arranged in 12 rows of 28 columns each spaced 16 feet (4.9 m) apart.

Basilica Cistern: 336 columns, each over 8 m (26 ft) high, built in 532

It is thought that the columns were salvaged from other buildings, since they include a variety of designs and materials. Two columns rest on bases with carved Medusa heads. One head is oriented sideways and the other is upside down, purportedly to negate the power of Medusa’s gaze.

One of two Medusa heads in the Basilica Cistern

The Galata Tower is another of Istanbul’s striking landmarks and dates from the 1300’s. The tower offers terrific views of the city.

Galata Tower

View from Galata Tower

I will conclude this rambling post with a series of images that I will let speak for themselves.

Fish sandwich scene at Eminönü

Selling lottery tickets

Morning street vendor below our apartment

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Süleymaniye Mosque courtyard

Flowering magnolia

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Sunset in Istanbul

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Istanbul – Part Four: The Bosphorus

Istanbul is defined by the Bosphorus. Its Golden Horn inlet divides the historic part of the city from the newer part of town where my daughter Bryn and I stayed. The main Bosphorus strait divides Europe from Asia and connects the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara (which is connected by the Dardanelles to the Aegean Sea, and thereby to the Mediterranean Sea.)

View from Galata Tower

With the city’s hilly topography, views of the water abound.

Katy at Galata Tower

The Galata Bridge spans the Golden Horn and is the main connector between historic and new Istanbul. The bridge has a dual personality, with fishermen lined up above, trying their luck, and restaurants below, serving fish, what else?

Galata Bridge fishermen

Galata Bridge fish restaurants

My friend and former Svanholm guest, Sungur, came into town one day to join Bryn and me for a boat ride on the Bosphorus. Besides visiting the major mosques and bazaars, it is the excursion he recommends most highly to visitors. We settled into our seats and watched the Tower of Leander fade into the distance.

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Over the years, the tower has served as a watchtower and a lighthouse. Currently it houses a restaurant and cafe. The locals also call it the Maiden’s Tower because of a story about an emperor who dreamed that his daughter was going to die because of a snake bite and settled the girl in the tower to ensure her safety. In spite of his precautions, the tragedy could not be averted and the girl was bitten by a snake hiding in a fruit basket.

While we were underway, we were thrilled to spot some dolphins swimming beside us. Dolphins are a sign of good luck, so in spite of the clouds overhead, we looked forward to our adventure.

Dolphins in the Bosphorus!

The banks of the Bosphorus are lined with palaces and mansions that date back centuries. Wealthy families often moved out of the city to the waterside to escape the summer heat.

Bosphorus palace, now a hotel

Our boat made several stops along the way, picking up and dropping off passengers while criss-crossing from Europe to Asia and back again. After about an hour and a half, our final destination came into view. An old castle, perched high on a hill, now in ruins.

Castle ruins

The boat dropped us off and we had three hours to explore and have lunch before it would take us back to the city. We disembarked at Anadolu Kavağı and admired the town’s traditional yalis (waterfront villas).

Anadolu kavagi

A healthy hike got us up to the ruins, where a guard allowed us, but not others, to go into a roped off area and explore.

With Sungur above the Bosphorus

A friendly dog acted as our tour guide, making sure we saw everything.

This dog was a great tour guide

The Bosphorus is the world’s narrowest strait used for international navigation and, as you can see below, it is used by many different kinds, and sizes, of watercraft.

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I’m not quite sure why the guard only let us into this area. Maybe Sungur charmed him or maybe it was the luck of the dolphins. We had a leisurely tour of the place and gave the guard a small tip when we left.

With Bryn in the castle ruins

Back down in town we enjoyed a delicious lunch of fresh fish before reboarding our boat and heading back to the city.

View from Gözde restaurant

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Istanbul – Part Three: Food

The food in Turkey was delicious and we experienced it in many forms and many places: from elegant restaurants with white table cloths and doting waiters to the chaos at the floating fish sandwich boats at Eminönü.

Fish boat at Eminönü

The traditional accompaniment to the famous fish sandwich is pickle juice. Some versions of the drink are only juice, while others include vegetables as seen below.

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I have to say, the Turks know how to use their spices and their vegetables. Turkey’s typography and climate zones are varied enough that just about everything grows somewhere in the country. Fruits, nuts, vegetables, and meat — there was no lack of variety in restaurants and in markets.

Spice market w/ pepper mills and Turkish tea glasses

The Turks are also ubiquitous tea drinkers. When walking down a street, we were frequently passed by a man or boy carrying a tray with two or three glasses of tea. I assume these were going to a shop owners or workers unable or unwilling to brew their own. Tea is drunk from glasses, not cups, and always served with sugar, but never with milk.

Tea at the hookah cafe

Honey is also extremely popular in Turkey. Most stores carry jars of nuts immersed in honey. We were told that the Turks consume these to get energy. My daughter and I got our own (over)dose of honey the evening my friend and former Svanholm guest, Sungur, took us to Istanbul’s most famous baklava purveyor.

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I never knew there were so many different types of this tasty treat. It was hard to choose because they all looked so good, so we tried a few.

That's honey, sonny.

It was also in this establishment that we saw portraits made from baklava. A new Minnesota State Fair category perhaps? See if you recognize anyone in the portraits below.

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Obama in baklava

Because we visited Istanbul on the verge of spring, the street vendors were all still selling roasted chestnuts when we arrived, but many had transitioned to ears of corn by the time our week was over. Other popular stands were those selling freshly squeezed juices.

Roasting walnuts

Outside the Blue Mosque we encountered one street vendor who was selling made to order candy on a stick. It was beautiful, but so unnaturally colorful that I was not even tempted to try it.

Candy made to order

Our last night in Istanbul we decided we wanted kebab. We found the perfect place, with a second floor view of the activity below, a very attentive waiter (who ran down the block to get me a beer), and a delicious variety of kebab. I still can’t believe we ate the whole thing!

With our kebabs - I can't believe we ate the WHOLE thing!

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Cows’ Day 2013

This past Sunday, April 21st, was Cows’ Day here at Svanholm. Actually, it was Cows’ Day on all of Denmark’s organic farms, meaning it was the day that the cows left their barns and went out to the fields, after having been indoors all winter. It was quite the event.

Chika and Elin

About 5000 people (mostly families with children) came to Svanholm for Cows’ Day to watch the cows race out from the barn and “dance” in the field. It was sweet to see how excited both the people and the cows were about the whole thing.

The cows were released from the barn at noon and it took them less than 5 minutes to get out to the field, but the event itself lasted from 10 am – 2 pm. The day is a money-making opportunity for Svanholm, with ice cream, pancakes, cake, soup,beef sandwiches, coffee, fresh milk and beer for sale in a food tent and other goodies on sale in the cafe/boutique (frozen meat, fresh loaves of bread, etc.).

Many of us started helping on Saturday at 10 am, peeling apples for cake and preparing vegetables for the soup, working until about 3 pm in good company. The burger patty crew started at noon and finished up about 6 pm, making 2000 patties.

Sally and Tina make apple cake

Hanne, Noel, Anne, Iver, Jess -- the burger team

The next day, volunteer activity started about 9 am and, sure enough, our first customers started arriving around 10 am. People were directed to park in one of our fields and I was fascinated to watch them come streaming in continuously across the fields.

The hoardes approach

I have to say I have never seen so many pancakes made and consumed in one place! Danish pancakes are thin and crepe-like, and we served them rolled up in pairs with sugar. Two pancakes for 25 DKK (about $4.25) must have been a good deal because people were lined up 30 deep to get them.

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Besides the food, there were hay bales for children to climb on and tours in a horse-drawn cart. More adventurous visitors could go find the goats and sheep and see all the babies that had just been born.

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At 5 minutes before noon, the food tent shut down so that we first-timers could also experience the cows’ joy. Having seen the cows lumber in and out of the barn last summer and fall, I have to admit I was surprised to see them racing out to the field. And once they got to the field, they did indeed do a bit of “dancing” out of sheer pleasure to be outside again.

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I’m already looking forward to next year’s Cows’ Day, as my current plan is to be home in the USA from late August – February and then come back here in March for 5 or 6 months. I’d be happy to host friends who want to experience this unique event. Just let me know.

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Istanbul — Part Two: Turkish Soccer

On Easter Sunday, my daughter Bryn and I had a completely spontaneous day in Istanbul. We had planned to take in two of Istanbul’s major tourist attractions, but our host invited us to have a Turkish breakfast. How could we turn that down?

Sunday breakfast with Selim and friends

After a delicious and leisurely breakfast, we thought we could still knock off one of the “must see” attractions. As we were preparing to head out, we heard a lot of activity down in the street below us and were informed that there was a soccer game about to begin across the street. Although we had been living in Selim’s apartment since Tuesday, we frankly hadn’t noticed the stadium because it is built into the hillside and does not have much of a street presence. We looked out the window and, sure enough, there were hundreds of men buying tickets, taking group photos, and gathering for the game.

It's soccer Sunday!

As we headed down the stairs, Bryn asked whether I was interested in checking out the activity before we moved on. Open to an adventure, I assented and before long she was bargaining with someone for tickets. We checked in with our hosts to make sure we weren’t getting ripped off and purchased two tickets for 30 Turkish Lira (about $17 or 96 DKK).

Our hosts

As we headed to the entrance gate, I saw a lot of armed police and wondered if Turkey was one of the countries with rabid soccer fans. Vague recollections of news stories of trampled fans nagged at me briefly, but we followed the crowd and joined the queue. Need I mention that we were the ONLY women present?

After waiting in line for about five minutes, a few men started speaking to us and motioned that we should go around to the outside of the crowd. We suspected maybe women were supposed to enter somewhere else, but it turned out they just wanted us to be able to skip the queue and enter expeditiously. Stadium security confiscated the plastic tops from our water bottles (potential projectiles we later figured out) and we followed the flow of fans. It soon became obvious that the seat numbers on our tickets were academic. Someone handed us blue and white flags to wave for the home team and we headed for the seats.

We followed the crowd and looked down into the stadium section where they were going. All we could see were men, lots of them, packed tightly together. We turned around to go to the next section of seating, which hadn’t starting filling yet, but were turned back by a policeman. Resigning ourselves to go into the full section, we headed back, but were stopped by another policeman, who motioned for us to continue with our original strategy. So we turned around, only to be stopped by the same policeman as before, so once again we reversed directions. This time, the second policeman accompanied us and explained to his colleague that we should go into the empty section and then make our way to the edge of the full section.

We then discovered that the police intentionally keep an entire section empty to act as a buffer between the local and visiting fans. A line of police guard the empty section to make sure the fans don’t interact. Through hand signals we were instructed to go past the police and sit between them and the local fans. I felt good about being right next to the police.

We had missed the first 15 minutes of the game, but it was still scoreless. Having watched a lot of soccer when my children played, I appreciated the skill of the players on the field. Just as entertaining, however, were the fans. Both the locals and the visitors shouted during the ENTIRE game, non-stop.

Crazy fans

As an added precaution to make sure there was no trouble, the visiting fans were locked inside a cage. The only one outside it was the guy leading the cheers.

This guy led the cheers for the visiting fans from a perch on top of the cage

The game proceeded with two yellow cards for the home team, a couple of players injured and carted off the field, three young fans getting hauled away after they somehow managed to get out onto the field, and a growing pile of sticks as fans dismantled their flags and threw the sticks towards the field. I acknowledged the wisdom of the security staff having confiscated all bottle tops.

The fans dissembled their flags and used the sticks as projectiles

In contrast to American professional sporting events, there were no concessionaires selling food and drink in the stands. With 95% of the population being Muslim, there was no alcohol for sale or consumed in the stadium. Considering how excited and vocal the fans were without alcohol, I wondered how crazy they would have been under the influence.

And then the game was over, the local team victorious.

Final Score

Then the real excitement began. The opposing fans started screaming at each other. The blue team’s fans taunted the green team’s fans and made obscene gestures.

Winning fans taunting the losers

The green team’s fans shouted back and the police got ready to intervene, if necessary.

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Police getting ready for after game action

The blue team’s fans made a rush at the police line, meaning they came at Bryn and me and climbed around us trying to get past us and the police. The two of us stood there bewildered, snapping photos. One of the guys who had been leading the cheers for the local team, came over to calm people down and encourage them to leave. The police directed us to get behind them and wait for the stands to clear out a bit.

Happy the cops were there

I noted the riot gear and tear gas canisters and was happy that it wasn’t proving necessary to use them.

Well prepared with tear gas

We waited and left after most of the local fans had already gone. The visiting fans were still locked up in their cage. About a half an hour later as we waited at a bus stop to go on our next adventure, we saw busloads of visiting fans departing, being escorted by vans of police.

Going to the game probably wasn’t the smartest thing we’ve ever done, but we enjoyed experiencing the local color and came away unscathed.

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Istanbul – Part One: Mosques

My daughter Bryn and I went to Istanbul for a week over Easter/Passover. We experienced too much to fit in one blog posting, so this is the first of what will be several missives about our trip. Rather than organizing things chronologically, I’ve decided to do so topically and I’m beginning with the buildings that dominate the city’s landscape: mosques.

The New Mosque and Süleymaniye Mosque

While it is still officially a secular state, the Turkey we experienced felt very Islamic. Most women wore hijab, although not many wore the full burka. There are mosques everywhere in all sorts of shapes and sizes. From the pink, unassuming Yeralti Mosque

Pink tree in front of pink Yeralit Mosque

to the imposing Blue Mosque with its six minarets.

At the Blue Mosque

Even if one were blind and could not see the mosques, one would still feel their presence. The call to prayer sings out from all over the city five times a day. The timing of these calls varies with the season, as they relate to sunrise and sunset: morning, mid-day, afternoon, sunset and evening. While we were in Istanbul, we heard the first call to prayer at about 9 am and the last one at about 8:30 pm.

Before modern technology, someone would actually climb up into the minaret(s) and sing/shout out the call to prayer. These days, the callers stay below and their voices are broadcast out of speakers located on the tower(s).  Each mosque sends out their call, so one becomes surrounded by the sound.

Haghia Sophia

The mosques are generally open to the public, except during the five prayer periods. Women are expected to cover their heads, so Bryn and I always had scarves packed along for that purpose. The interior floors are carpeted and one removes one’s shoes prior to entry. Believers typically wash their feet, arms and forehead prior to entry, as these body parts will touch the floor during their prayers.

Ablutions at the Blue Mosque

Ablutions area at the Blue Mosque

The Blue Mosque is so called, by the way, not because of anything blue on the exterior, but rather because of the beautiful blue İznik tiles in the interior.

Blue Mosque: over 250 windows, 4 visible pillars in contrast to Haghia Sophia

We were also impressed by the tiles inside the Rüstem Paşa Mosque, built in 1561 by the great architect Sinan.

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Rüstem Paşa Mosque

Many of Istanbul’s mosques were originally churches which were re-purposed by the Ottomans when they conquered the area. In the Little Haghia Sophia Mosque, one can see Greek script in the interior, a clue to its prior history.

Inside Little Haghia Sophia - notice Greek letters

Haghia Sophia was also a church, then a mosque, and now is a museum. Originally built in the 4th century (no typo, 4th, not 14th), the building is an architectural wonder. Its massive dome seems to float with no visible means of support.

HS dome2

When the Ottoman Turks conquered Constantinople in 1453, Sultan Mehmed II had the bells and altar removed, and the religious mosaics plastered over. When Turkey became a secular state in the 1930’s, Haghia Sophia was converted into a museum and the spectacular mosaics were revealed.

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Friday is the main religious day for Muslims, equivalent to Sunday for Christians and Saturday for Jews. On Good Friday, Bryn and I made sure to be at a mosque for the mid-day prayer. It was an overflow crowd, all male.

Overflow crowd at Friday noontime prayer at Rüstem Paşa Mosque

I exaggerate. There were two women who went into the special women’s area of the mosque. Most mosques have small separate areas for women, screened and partitioned off from the main prayer hall.

Women's section at Süleymaniye Mosque

Each mosque has a mihrab, which is a niche that indicates the direction of the holy city of Mecca. Below you can also see a kürsü, which is a special chair for the imam.

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A mosque also typically has a minbar, or pulpit, used for sermons.

Rüstem Paşa Mosque: minbar = pulpit

The mosques we visited all felt spacious, even empty. Without pews, the interiors seemed vast. But as evidenced by the Friday service we witnessed, the space is often filled by the faithful.

That’s all for this post. Stay tuned for more from Istanbul…

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Making Cheese

While it is still cold in Denmark, the days are noticeably longer.  I feel like we are emerging from a cold, dark cave into dazzling sunshine.  What a difference daylight can make.  After two months of running in the pitch black and being scared of cars in the dark, I can actually see and be seen when I go out in the morning.  It’s light when I go to help in the kitchen and light after dinner.  I’m breathing a sigh of relief that I made it through the dark, Scandinavian winter and have come out on the other side.

I apologize for the long break from blogging.  I place some of the blame on the dark, depressing winter, and the rest on the fact that I’ve been using my free weekends to make cheese!!  As many of you know, I took a week-long cheese-making class at the University of Wisconsin, River Falls, shortly before coming here (Wisconsin is serious about its cheese).  It took a while to locate Svanholm’s cheese molds, order bacteria and rennet, and figure out a cheese press, but I have now made several batches of both feta and farmhouse cheddar cheese.  I’m feeling comfortable enough now with my cheese-making that this week I did it on Wednesday while also doing other chores in the big kitchen.  No longer do I feel the need to focus exclusively on the cheese-making process during the 5-6 hours it takes, so I’ve got my weekends back and time to blog!

I thought I’d spend the bulk of this blog entry to respond to requests I have gotten to walk through the basics of cheese-making.  One thing I really have going for me here at Svanholm is the quality of the milk.  It all starts with our happy cows, which you can see below waiting to be milked.

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The cows are so cooperative that one person can milk all 120 of them. They wait patiently for their turn and when the gate opens they file in and line up by the milking machines.

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I’m told that the cows cooperate so well because they appreciate getting milked AND because they know that food awaits them when they are done. They enjoy their hay and really love the few potatoes that are mixed in.

Hungry cows

The milk from our Jersey cows is so good that a premiere Danish ice cream maker buys all the milk that we don’t use in our own kitchen. The milk that we use is not pasteurized; this is also known as “raw” milk. We store it in a large tank in our dairy refrigerator from which people help themselves. The large tank to the rear of the frig contains our delicious homemade yogurt.

The dairy refrigerator

So I start with 15 liters of wonderful, raw milk from healthy, organically-raised Jersey cows (that’s about 4 gallons). It took some trial and error, but I’ve found two pots that fit together well in a double-boiler setup, so that I can heat the milk indirectly. I heat the milk to 32°C (90°F) and add a half a teaspoon of a mesophilic starter culture, cover and let it “stew” for about 45 minutes. Next comes a teaspoon of animal rennet, diluted in some non-chlorinated water, stirred in, covered and allowed to sit for another 45 minutes. At this point, the excitement begins! The liquid milk has been turned into a solid and it’s time to cut the curd.

Cutting the curd

Cutting the curd is a little tricky, in that after you’ve made vertical cuts down and across, turned the pot ninety degrees and again cut down and across, you need to hold your cutting tool at an angle to cut the long blocks you have created. The idea is to end up with 1/2′ (1cm) sized cubes. The whey starts being released from the curds right away as you cut, as you can see below.

Cutting the curd

Because I’m making cheddar cheese, the next step is to cook the curds by gradually heating them up to 38°C (100°F), stirring occasionally to keep the curds from clumping together. More whey gets released in this process, which takes about 1/2 hour.

The curd has been cut

After letting the cooked curds rest for about 5 minutes, I transfer them to a cheesecloth-lined colander, tie them up and hang them for an hour. This lets more whey drip out of the curds and while they are hanging, I make a simple ricotta cheese out of the waste whey. That just requires heating the whey to 90°C (195°F) and adding some lemon juice or vinegar. The ricotta precipitates out of the whey and gets drained and hung up like the cheddar.

Hanging the curd

After hanging for an hour, the cheddar gets taken down and “milled”. This means I spend about a half an hour tearing the cheese into walnut-sized pieces. Why do that, you might ask? It’s at this point that salt gets added, which stops the bacteria culture from continuing to work and milling gives more surface area for the salt. Below you can see the cheese just prior to milling.

After an hour of hanging, before milling

After milling and salting (and adding herbs, if desired), the curds get placed in a cheesecloth-lined cheese mold. A “follower” is placed on top (in this case I’ve improvised and used a gravy bowl), then a board, and then weight. I start the cheddar off with 5 kg (11 lbs) for 10 minutes, followed by 10 kg (22 lbs) for another 10 minutes, followed by 25 kg (55 lbs) overnight. I borrow weights out of the fitness room, which is conveniently located above the kitchen, and hope that no one misses them too much for the one day that I use them.

With 10 kgs of weight

Then I tuck everything away to get it out of the way for the group that washes up after dinner (we sign up and take turns for this duty, by the way). You may note that I’ve got some extra pans included as part of the setup — from experience I’ve improvised to keep the whole contraption from toppling over. I’ve put in a birthday request with my son for him to build me a cheese press for my return to Minnesota that will make this precaution unnecessary.  Not having to lug 50 pounds of weights around would also be nice.

With 25 kgs of weight

The next day, the cheese is taken out of the molds and then allowed to air dry at room temperature for a couple of days. After air-drying, the cheese is ready for waxing and storage. Here’s what the cheese looks like both before and after waxing.

Air-drying the cheese

Cheese rounds, waxed and labelled

Notice the label, which indicates the type and date of the cheese. 15 liters of milk makes about 1.5 kg (3.3 lbs) of cheese. And if it looks like one round is missing from the photo below, it’s because my daughter received one as a birthday gift last weekend.

Cheese rounds in storage

My farmhouse cheddar is supposed to age at least one month, preferably longer, but we eat it pretty much as soon as we can here. The cheese is supposed to age at about 58°F (14°C) and about 80% humidity. I’ve found a spot in the oldest part of the manor house (dating from the 1300’s) that seems pretty good.  When I get home, I’m thinking I’ll buy a mini-fridge.

Cheese rounds in storage

So that’s a quick course on cheese-making. I’ve also made feta cheese while I’ve been here, which doesn’t require the cooking stage and doesn’t need to age. Feta is supposed to be made with goats’ milk, of course, but if I add lipase powder to the cow’s milk, it is a pretty good substitute.

You may have noticed that I’ve mentioned my return to Minnesota a couple of times in this post. I can really feel my stay here coming to an end. A stark reminder came this week when the signup sheet for April tasks got posted and I realized I only have two more months to sign up for dish washing and weekend cooking (we all take turns washing up after dinner – twice a month – and cooking on the weekends – once a month). It feels like the end is coming fast and I’m not sure I’m ready for it…but I’ve got exciting travel plans ahead for the summer…

I plan to travel with my daughter to SE Asia in June and July, meet a girlfriend in Tallinn, Estonia and travel with her to St. Petersburg, Russia for the first two weeks of August, and then meet my Swedish friends in Karpathos, Greece for a week (and my son may come join us!). After all that travel, I’ll come back to Svanholm for a few days to pick up my stuff and fly back to Minnesota in time to catch a day at the State Fair.

It has been a wonderful year. I have learned so much here, living among people who are very different from one another, but who have formed a cohesive community that discusses and works through its issues. A community that demonstrates its values of organic farming, income sharing, communal living, and self government. A community that manages its natural and human resources intelligently and also knows how to have fun.

My current plan is to enjoy Minnesota from September through the end of the year and then to return here next January for an additional three months or so. My daughter should be done with her Master’s program about then and has suggested that my chances are better to get her back to the States if I’m here when she finishes. I’m honestly skeptical because she really likes living in Denmark, but it will make it easier to say good-bye if I know I’m coming back.

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2012 Holiday Blog

Unlike previous years when U.S. retailers have begun to push Christmas on me at the end of October, external reminders didn’t really start here until December. Maybe that’s because I’m living on a farm and don’t spend much time in stores; no doubt the fact that I don’t watch any TV or listen to the radio also plays a role. Anyway, Christmas is almost upon me and I’m in a holiday mood.

Svanholm held a Christmas market on the first Sunday in December. External vendors sold crafts, while Svanholm sold various things to eat, vegetables to take home, and horse-drawn cart rides. As you can see below, we got a dusting of snow that morning, which made the atmosphere very Christmasy, but may have kept some customers away. About 800 people visited over the course of the day, fewer than the typical year’s 1000.

Cart rides for sale

Bryn came and helped me make cream puff swans that were a hit with both visiting customers and the Svanholmers (Svanholm means “swan island”). Chika, a Japanese guest who was here over the summer and fall, taught me how to make these tasty treats. You can see for yourself how cute they are.

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The following weekend, I joined my neighbors Signe and Tom for a performance of Handel’s Messiah at Christian’s Church in the Christainshavn district of Copenhagen. The three hour performance was magnificent and I was intrigued by the unique theater-style architecture of the church.

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Handel's Messiah

A common tradition here in Denmark that is not practiced much in the U.S., is the “julefrokost” or Christmas lunch. On the 14th I attended one for Svanholmers who work on the farm and there will be another, general one on the 26th. The first lunch was hosted by the Building Group and it was remarkable how cozy they could make the workshop feel.

So cozy!

A snowstorm earlier in the week made the Christmas aura even brighter.

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The amount of food served at the lunch was ridiculous: fish, chicken, beef, and pork. Beverages included champagne, akvavit, whiskey and beer and the program included songs and various games. We started the festivities at 2pm; I lasted until about 9pm, while others partied well into the morning.

Julefrokost for the home workers

I might have been tempted to stay longer, but I had to get up early the next morning to catch a flight to Stockholm, Sweden. A Danish friend who worked in the kitchen this last summer invited me to join her there for a few days. Lise will stay in a friend’s Stockholm flat into the New Year and I was very happy to take the opportunity to see her again and discover the city. Stockholm is a beautiful place, built on 14 islands and connected by picturesque bridges, with water and views everywhere.

Katy and Lise -- view of Gamla Stan

Stockholm lies northeast of Copenhagen at about the same latitude as Churchill, Canada, where many tourists go to see polar bears. The outside temperature wasn’t so bad; it hovered at just about freezing while I was there, but the shortness of the days was remarkable. By about 1:30 pm dusk was approaching and by 3 pm it was completely dark! I want to return to the city some day when there is no snow and enough daylight that I can really see it.

In Stockholm I experienced fabulous “slow art” at the National Gallery. Here you can see one example in this dress made from shards of glass:

Slow art in the national gallery

I also enjoyed the gingerbread houses on display at the Architecture Museum.

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The same museum included “Homemade Recipes for Urban Activism”.

Architecture Museum

Unlike Macy’s in downtown Saint Paul, Stockholm’s largest department store, NK (Nordiska Kompaniet), stills mounts animated Christmas displays in its store windows, charming children and adults alike. This year’s windows were based on popular children’s stories, including Pippi Longstocking, as you can see below.

Christmas display (Pippi Longstocking) at NK department store

Stockholm’s City Hall is the site of the annual Nobel banquet and ball. After dinner is served in the “Blue Hall”, guests are ushered upstairs to the “Gold Hall” for dancing. The Gold Hall contains 10 kilograms of gold in the 18 MILLION glass tiles that make up the mosaics which cover the walls. The artist Einar Forseth estimated he needed seven years to complete the mosaics, but the architect Ragnar Östberg only gave him two years. Incredible.

City Hall: the gold room; 10 kilos of gold in 18 million glass tiles

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I want to share two more images from Stockholm, both of which made me smile. The first is of a statue outside the Central Station that someone decided needed headphones and the second is from a food hall in Östermalm.

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In the Östermalm food hall

I got back to Svanholm on Thursday, the 20th, connecting with Bryn in Copenhagen on my way. She had just finished her big semester project on industrial symbiosis and was ready to relax. It was a priority for both of us to be at Svanholm for the “solhverv” (solstice) celebration, having heard about it from my niece Leah and many community members. While a lot of Scandinavians celebrate the summer solstice with bonfires, not many still mark the winter one. Svanholm’s solhverv traditions are special.

We gathered outside the dining hall at 3pm and started walking together through the woods. Our first destination was a nearby hill, where we enjoyed a bonfire, songs and rum in the gathering dusk.

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By the time we walked to the second hill, it was dark and getting chilly. We were welcomed by another, bigger bonfire and partook in cookies, clementines, songs, and gløgg (warm spiced red wine).

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After much singing and socializing, we lit home-made torches and began our journey back through the woods.

And torches!

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When we got to the road, we were really a sight for cars that passed by. It was so magical. The closest experience I can compare it to is the luminaries on Lake of the Isles. Darkness, fire, and cold.

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When we got back to the park behind the manor house, we used our torches to light a bonfire that burned all night in order to welcome the sun back as the days start to get longer again.

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We sang another song or two and then went to the dining hall for a bowl of delicious yellow pea soup and medister pølse (a special spicy pork sausage served around Christmas time).

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And now it’s the 23rd and I’m in Copenhagen. Bryn and I volunteered today at the socio-anarchist community of Christiania and will go there again tomorrow to help with the Christmas dinner. For the past 25 years, Christiania has hosted a free Christmas dinner for the homeless and for others who happen to be alone over the holidays. I’m told that last year they had 4000 attendees (less than half were homeless). The food is all donated (Svanholm gave the potatoes this year), as are the decorations and entertainment. While a snow storm raged outside today, I had the pleasure of working with flowers: first making centerpieces for the tables and later helping to make a wall of flowers that will greet guests as they enter the Great Hall. I would include photos, but they are all on Bryn’s camera and she stayed on to volunteer later than I did tonight. I think I’ll go ahead and publish this post now and add a couple of photos in a week or so. By the way, my American friends might be interested to know that the Danes celebrate three days of Christmas, the 24th, 25th, and 26th, and two days for New Year’s, the 31st and 1st, which makes for very few work days at the end of the year.

A year later and I’m finally adding a few photos from Christiania. Better late than never, right? First, the beautiful flowers. The sight and smell of them in the dead of winter was heavenly.

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Here Bryn was working on the gorgeous wall of flowers that greeted people when they entered the building:

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Shown below, the evening of December 24th, just before the doors opened to the public. Earlier in the day, we witnessed the construction of the large star on the far wall and the cutting of the logs that decorated the serving tables.

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I worked the vegetarian plate line. Vegetarians received about 6 or 7 different amazing veggie dishes arranged on their plate. The meat eaters went elsewhere to get traditional Danish roast pork, red cabbage and potatoes. Later there were mountains of cookies and chocolates. No one left hungry.

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Hamlet’s Castle at Elsinore (Helsingør in Danish)

A couple of weeks back someone at lunch asked me if I had been to Helsingør yet to visit Kronborg Castle. I answered that I’d been past it on at least three or four occasions as my train or car has driven on (or off) a ferry to cross to (or from) Sweden (yes, trains actually drive onto ferries here!), but that I had never been inside.

My memories of Krongborg Castle include looking out a fogged-up train window through rain and gloom, and making note of the castle’s immense fortifications. The place is foreboding and seems an appropriate setting for the dark intrigue that Shakespeare penned in his “Hamlet”. I have always associated Kronborg with deceit and murder and wasn’t sure I needed to see the interior.

After speaking with a couple of folks and learning that Kronborg Castle is a UNESCO world heritage site, however, I decided to go check it out. Time is passing quickly here — I have been at Svaholm nearly six months already — and I figured it was time to head out on another adventure. I calculated that I could get to Helsingør and back in a day and wouldn’t need to spend the night. The Danish website rejseplanen.dk gave me the transit info I needed: 4 buses and a train to get there, two trains and two buses to get back, about 2-1/2 to three hours each way. Leaving Svanholm at 9am would give me time to look around on my own a bit before the 1pm guided tour and leaving Kronborg around 4pm when it closed would get me back comfortably before it got too late.

Hamlet is a fictional character, of course, although one based upon events that took place a thousand years prior to Shakespeare’s version and hundreds of miles away in northern Jutland. Shakespeare updated the story of Amled to make it more appealing to contemporary audiences and picked a setting that had an international reputation for splendor.

As you can see from the model in the photo below, Kronborg is a castle and star fortress, with multiple lines of defense.

The castle/fortress is located at the narrowest part of the Øresund, the sound between Denmark and Sweden that connects the North and Baltic Seas. Danish kings collected “Sound Dues” from the ships that passed by in payment for keeping the seaways free of pirates.

Down below the ramparts are the casemates, which in times of war could house up to 1,000 soldiers, along with horses and supplies. It was too dark down there to take photos, but perhaps this one taken on the way down will give you a sense of the robustness of the fortifications.

Down in the casemates is a statue of another Danish hero, Holger Danske (Holger the Dane). According to legend, Holger spent time abroad helping to keep the muslims from overrunning Europe. Upon his return, he fell asleep, but if Denmark is ever threatened, legend has it he will wake up to protect it.

The castle itself has many levels. The basement was used primarily for storage. The ground floor housed the chapel, the kitchen, a brewery, a blacksmith, shops, and some primitive apartments for commoners. The royal apartments (living/sleeping chambers) were on the next level up and on the top floor were the public areas, e.g., the ballroom.

The first part of the castle was built by Eric of Pomerania around 1425. In 1574-85 King Frederik II rebuilt the castle, improving the fortifications and turning it into one of the most significant Renaissance castles in Northern Europe. Much of the castle was damaged by a large fire in 1629, but King Christian IV, the son of Frederik II, reconstructed the exterior in a similar style. The Swedes bombarded and captured Kronborg in 1658, making off with many of the castle’s works of art, including a magnificent fountain made of brass, which was melted down and reused. In the fountain’s place in the castle courtyard is a small well that was erected in 1934.

I found it interesting that one of the castle towers functions as a lighthouse.

Back to the inside. The photo below is of the ballroom — Northern Europe’s largest at 203′ X 39′ (62 X 12 meters). The floor is marble and in its day, the walls would have been covered in tapestries, not paintings.

I did like this one painting, however. In it you see Margrete I, Queen of Denmark, Norway and Sweden and founder of the Kalmar Union, which united the Scandinavian countries for over a century. Margrete acted as queen regnant of Denmark, although in those days it was not the Danish custom for a woman to reign. She became Queen of Norway and Sweden by virtue of her marriage to King Haakon VI of Norway. Denmark’s current queen is Margrete II, the first female monarch since Margrete I’s death in 1412.

In the ballroom is this miniature display, complete with dancing holograms, that depicts what the room may have looked like in its hey day.

In a different room another miniature display shows how the castle’s interior decor was changed by Christian IV after the fire of 1629. The marble floor tiles were replaced with wood and the wood ceiling was replaced with plaster and inlaid paintings.

Here’s one of seven tapestries that remain in the castle from a series of 40 that were commissioned by Frederik II around 1580. They included portraits of 100 Danish kings and were woven by teams of artisans over about five years. Seven other tapestries from the series are on display at the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen; the rest have sadly been lost.

In this room you can see the original marble floor tiles and the way the tapestries were meant to be hung, right next to each other in order to cover cold walls. Another interesting tidbit: the tapestries were originally hung 18 inches (50 centimeters) from the walls to avoid damaging them by contact with damp surfaces. Ever wonder how Polonius thought he could hide unnoticed behind a tapestry in Gertrude’s chamber? Eighteen inches provided room!

Kronborg had all the modern conveniences, too, like toilets. The tour guide said that in other castles, people relieved themselves in dark corners. Yuk!

There were intriguing views out of every window. Here you can see the Flag Bastion, where the ghost of Hamlet’s father was to have roamed. Shakespeare appears to have been very familiar with Kronborg Castle, although there is no record of him having been there. The records do show that several of his acting friends performed there, however.

I believe the tour guide said the cannons are the world’s? Europe’s? oldest that are still functional. They were made in Frederiksværk during the 1760s and are still used to mark special occasions in the royal family, like birthdays, and when the royal yacht passes by.

The chapel is the one part of the castle that survived the big fire of 1629. Its beautifully carved and colorful interior gives an idea of Kronberg’s splendor before the fire and Christian IV’s updating.

It’s a pity all those wood ceilings in the rest of the castle were replaced with plaster ones.

Leaving the castle, I walked out to the water and looked back. In the photo below you can see the lighthouse tower and four of Kronborg’s five lines of defense. I imagined the ghost of King Hamlet walking on the Flag Bastion, bemoaning his murder at the hands of his brother and demanding that his son seek revenge.

The moat is the fifth line of defense.

As I left the grounds, I noticed how the cobblestones have been modified to make it easier for visitors with baby strollers or walkers. This is some updating that I approve of.

On my way back to the train station, I passed by this charming entry. If you look closely on the left you can see it dates to 1647. While it was only 4pm, it was already getting dark as you can clearly see.

On the ride back to Svanholm, I thought about kings exacting gold for safe passage and fighting for control of waterways. I thought about more and more fortifications being added to Kronborg over the years, as the “impregnable” fortress was breached. I thought about how the physical comfort I have in my room at Svanholm is far superior to that of even so lavish a palace as the one I had just visited. I’m glad to be living in 2012 and not 1512, 1612 or even 1812.

I was reminded of a question another guest asked me earlier this summer. “What was your best year?” he queried. I couldn’t answer him at the moment, I’ve had so many good years. I needed some time to answer a question like that. The answer came to me on my run the following morning and I was able to give him a reply at lunch: “This year is my best year.” In fact, every year is my best year, with the one exception of the year Mark died. I strive to live in the present and enjoy each moment as it unfolds.

I enjoyed my outing to Helsingør. I hope you have, too.

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