Island life

If Bornholm was in the Mediterranean or Caribbean it would probably be described as a pearl, in the manner that quaint and verdant holiday islands are. You’ve read it in travel brochures and possibly the less than objective but ‘Bornholm – pearl of the Baltic’ doesn’t really work and I’m struggling to find the appropriate cognomen for a place that’s unique, green and very attractive in parts, hosts nearly three-quarters of a million holidaymakers each year during its short summer season but which still seems, despite initiatives and huge effort to bring more tourists aboard, to fall short of appearing at the top of bucket lists.

Bornholm has a lot of history and works hard at attracting tourists since fishing all but collapsed in the 1990s – less than 300 work in fishing now out of an island population of 42000 – but it has few claims to fame; breeding Tengmalm’s owls, round churches, a small ceramics industry, some attractive countryside and an increasingly important food sector are about it. The owls are very difficult to see at this time of year (being nocturnal in most things they do), we didn’t have time to visit any of the churches and pottery sucks so that left the culinary angle. After all, the principal reason for being on the island was to enjoy Sol Over Gudhjem, a competition for international chefs that takes its name from a local dish (smoked herring, raw onion and egg yolk) and which aims to promote Bornholm’s local produce and ‘gourmet tourism’.

We’d decided – not without some trepidation on my part – to forego the car and arrive, in what I like to think of as the true spirit of this picturesque corner of Denmark, with only our bikes. So, attired in tee-shirts and sneakers with newly-purchased saddle-bags strapped on, we boarded the ferry in Ystad – just down the road – for the crossing to Rønne, the main town on the island. Actually, I thought we looked fetching and rather sporty. We know a little about the Danes so the ungainly scramble for coffee and elbowing for seats was less of a shock than the sight of hoards of Danish cyclists kitted out to survive a combination of Arctic storm and tropical deluge. I hadn’t seen so much professional weather-protection before and, as the front gate on the catamaran was lowered ahead of docking, Mission Control was nervously tugging at the hem of her shorts as all around us zips were pulled, Velcro straps tightened and the general rustle of breathable, waterproof shell jackets reached a crescendo.

As we swept onto the dockside we felt very under-dressed but the weather forecast had been mixed and light rain was only a possibility late in the afternoon. It was bright as we turned north and we’d easily cover the 25km to Allinge, where we were booked into the charming but snug Byskrivergaarden Hotel Garni, before then. And we almost made it. The cycle track, a stunningly-pretty route through forests and along shoreline cliff tops well away from main roads, was a joy. At every turn there was wildlife, the perfume of woodland in summer and all around us the song of Wood warblers, Thrush nightingales and Redstarts. By the half-way point the sun was shining and we sat at the Café Emajoka in Hasle harbour with coffee and very passable apple cake discussing plans for future – and more adventurous – cycle expeditions. Cycling was to be our desideratum; we had conjoined with nature and life was wonderful.

By the time the weather closed in and the rain started we were at the point aircraft reach when in mid-Atlantic; too far to turn back and still a long way to go. With water running down my back and dripping off my nose I suddenly understood all those microfibre-lined jackets and tight-fitting cuffs. Visibility was down to about 50m in Allinge and we probably looked a sad sight as we made our solitary and sodden way to the waterfront and the hotel. But by evening the sky was clearing and the rain stopped. Stepping over puddles we made our way to meet friends at Det Gamle Posthus in Allinge. This was recommended as the best restaurant in town and it was pretty good; well-served tapas, fresh local plaice and Svaneke ‘Gold’ beer contributed to a great evening and the forecast for next day was optimistic – sunshine and temperatures above twenty degrees.

We woke to bright sunshine and the island looked different under a cloudless sky. Gudhjem, a picturesque hamlet below wooded hills with two small harbours and a profusion of smokery chimneys, was warm and thronged with visitors. A food market displaying that local produce surrounded the competition arena and TV crews jostled with visiting cruise ship passengers for the best vantage points. As the chefs conjured up dishes that artfully arranged tiny morsels of pork neck with cornflowers and radish (it’s a small island, OK?) we toured the market stalls, sampling smoked herring, sausage and chocolate; wine and oil, honey, soft ice cream (the residents’ favourite treat) and ice cold ‘Sol over Gudhjem’ beer from Svaneke, brewed especially for the occasion. We sampled quite a lot of the beer during the afternoon, to be honest. The standard of the produce on offer was high; this was clearly Bornholm at its best and it was thoroughly enjoyable. I wondered, though, how many of the people complimenting the gourmet delights surrounding us would be scuttling back to their campsites for kebab and chilli sauce, which is a Danish staple.

At the after-party we sipped chilled champagne on the quayside as Bornholm’s clear blue sky turned midsummer white. Dinner later was over on the west coast at Le Port in Vang, which is located high on cliffs and has stunning views to Sweden. A superb meal of smoked cod and veal, a near-perfect Sancerre and excellent service made nonsense of the increasingly tangential Tripadvisor. This place really is very good and the only cloud on the horizon, so to speak, was the cloud gathering over Sweden and drifting in our direction.

By morning the sky was overcast, a sea mist surrounded us and rain was imminent. Nevertheless, we were on our bikes and heading south along cycle route 10 again in an effort to get to Rønne before the downpour. We weren’t even close and being made to wait in torrential rain while cars boarded the ferry ahead of us turned ‘being wet’ into ‘thoroughly soaked’. When we eventually boarded the ferry appeared full – all the seats were taken – as campers and desolate Danish tourists tried to keep children amused and dogs quiet while fending off boredom with family-sized white Toblerone.

We liked Bornholm and have talked about visiting again, perhaps after the summer season, but we’ve been warned by those who say they know that the island closes when the campers, cyclists and gourmet tourists stop coming. I suspect the gourmet food producers take a holiday themselves then but I’m certain we’ll be able to get a kebab. Meanwhile, I’ll have a look at waterproof coats, just in case.


Midsummer murmurs

Midsummer is on us and the Scandinavians are preparing to celebrate it in customary fashion. Here in Sweden the ever-practical locals take a pragmatic and serious view of the occasion so Midsommarafton or Midsummer’s Eve is a holiday and celebrated on the nearest Friday to the sun reaching its zenith; something to do with managing the effects of drinking copious amounts of snaps and dancing around a maypole in national dress, I suspect. The celebration demands a lot of singing, pickled herring, strawberries and neighbourly back-slapping and, after a few years of practice, I’m doing well on my personal journey towards mastering the effects of caraway-flavoured alcohol.

The celebration of midsummer is founded in pagan ritual when the white Scandinavian sky makes the evening shimmer with magic. In Sweden it’s said that if you put seven varieties of wild flower under your pillow at midsummer you will dream of your future spouse. I tried that after some of my early flirtations with snaps but all I dreamt of was falling down a deep, dark tunnel. Maybe you have to be Swedish. It’s also said that herbs and water taken from springs at midsummer will bring health to people and livestock so a tradition of ‘greening’ sees flowers and greenery hung over houses or barns. The gathering, feasting and dancing around the maypole can be joyous – to say the least – and have ancient echoes of fertility rites. I don’t know if that’s based on fact but I do know that as the evening wears on and the alcohol warms the northern clime a certain mellowness sets in.

In Sweden midsummer is an important holiday that ranks with Christmas as the principal festival in the year. For our part, we’ll make the ninety-minute ferry crossing to the island of Bornholm, Denmark’s easternmost outpost, where there will be friends, family and a midsummer chef’s competition – Sol over Gudhjem.

Denmark also considers midsummer a big occasion. It’s celebrated with bonfires and is called Sankt Hans aften or St John’s Eve. The fires, especially when placed alongside the sea or bodies of water, are a traditional measure to drive away evil spirits or witches. I’ll maintain a keen lookout for spirits heading south but until then I’m taking stock of the real magic of midsummer; wheeling Red kites, birdsong and the wealth of wild flowers filling the fields and margins at this time of year. Skål!

Marie after lunch and both kinds of music; country and western

Copenhagen, as I’ve probably written before, can be many things but on the whole it is wonderful and I love it. There’s a lot on offer and last week on two separate visits – when it was far too cold for my favourite pastime of watching girls on bicycles – I dipped into different ends of the cultural spectrum.

I take every opportunity I can to spend time with a Danish lady who enchanted me when I first encountered her more than twenty years ago and who continues to fascinate me. I had arranged to see her again last week and, although you couldn’t describe what we have as a relationship, it is most certainly an affaire d’amour, albeit one-sided. My admiration is unrequited while she remains distant and unattainable so, when we are together, I have some mixed feelings to deal with. I wasn’t due to see her until after lunch so Mission Control and I enjoyed a very pleasant couple of hours in Bistro Boheme. This is another Danish café that presents a sort of faux French ambience and, in doing so, isn’t quite one thing or the other.  Nonetheless, the food’s good, the atmosphere better and the wine list excellent. Smart and attentive staff in the ubiquitous black outfit served us fried cod’s roe, fois gras and a passable Boeuf Parisienne with a really good Cote de Beaune.

After the pleasant interlude we wrapped-up against the cold and headed up the road, rosy-cheeked from the biting wind or the third glass of wine, I’m not sure which. Although I was on my way to ‘Den Hirschsprungske Samling’ to see Marie again it was actually her husband, Peder, who was the main attraction. Peder Severin Krøyer is the most well-known of the Skagen painters and, in celebration of its centenary, the Hirschspung Collection is holding an exhibition* of his work. The Skagen painters were an eponymous group of Scandinavian artists and writers who lived and worked in the northernmost part of Denmark at the end of the nineteenth century. The landscape and quality of light there is perfectly suited to working in the open and it encouraged the establishment of a small school of painting that drew influence from both the Impressionists and French realists that included Degas and Manet. A lot of Krøyer’s paintings and sketches feature his wife, Marie, and capture a beauty and inner calm that I find both fascinating and irresistible. I never tire of the apparent serenity that flows from the images of her. The Krøyer’s marriage ended badly; he struggled with mental instability brought on by syphilis and died nearly blind at only 58. By that time she had left him to live with and then marry Hugo Alfvén, a Swedish composer. She died in 1940 after living in Tällberg, Sweden – by coincidence, the same place that featured in Barrowboy in winter – and years later cast a spell on me during my first visit to Scandinavia. I’m not the only one that sees something special in Marie Krøyer; a new Danish film – The Passion of Marie – will tell the story of the Krøyers’ relationship when it’s released in November 2012.

‘Roser’ – the exquisite Marie sits in the garden with Rapp the dog. 1893

This is the garden in Skagen depicted in the painting shown above. Krøyer became very interested in photography

and used photographs to fill-in details on his paintings.

‘Hip Hip Hurra’ – Kroyer’s well-known painting of Skagen painters has Marie with her back

to us at the front and the artist fourth from left. 1888

Marie, Rapp and Peder Severin Krøyer

And so from the truly sublime to the, well, other kind of sublime. There’s a lot of music in Copenhagen and an advantage in having family there, especially when a stopover between Sweden and Kastrup airport offers the twin attractions of a late Friday night [an excellent single malt included] and breakfast on Saturday morning. But there’s something else, too; a brother-in-law who has, on the one hand, his own recording studio – fully kitted-out with the latest techno-geekery – and, on the other, a desire to share it with an inclusive and disarming enthusiasm. We’ve enjoyed quite a few soirees over the years and whether it’s picking over vintage R&B, browsing YouTube, recording some not-too-difficult favourites – a pastime not recommended if you think you can carry a tune but don’t like surprises – or simply listening to Lars play guitar or keyboards, it is way up there as an enjoyable means of spending an evening. So, glass in hand and stepping a careful path between guitars, mics, keyboards, speakers, a Hammond B3 and knee-deep song sheets, we immersed ourselves in a surround-sound, twin screen, HD replay of the Earth, Wind and Fire / Chicago concert at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles in 2004. [Here’s a sample] Yes, of course it’s shamefully nostalgia but there isn’t a lot of music produced today that can raise the hairs on your arms in the way that combined brass section does.  Sometimes you have to agree that the old stuff was better.

LA Studios – Lars selects another clip that cannot be missed!

It was 3.00am before we were done with those guys and a few others; I remember Chaka Khan and The End of a Love Affair; singing along with Hall and Oates; Boz Scaggs and a cool Swedish guitarist called Andreas Oberg but the rest has faded.

Copenhagen can be many different things.

* The exhibition lasts until 10 April 2012 and the 140 works feature many important paintings and sketches that have been loaned from other collections, including some private ones. It represents a major collection of work across a lifetime spent travelling in Europe as well as living and working in Skagen. The exhibition will be in Skagen after Copenhagen, from 4 May to 2 September 2012

Scandinavia; it’s a funny place

Back in Scandinavia and it’s the Vikings’ version of the silly season in Denmark and Sweden. Despite promising myself a few quiet days that included some gentle birding [migration is underway and the skies are filling], a few glasses of good red wine and a little garden tidying before embarking on a sojourn to Cannes I was dragged out of my repose by Greg [from Denmark via Berkshire] and Bill [from Vancouver] to waste another evening of my life trawling the bars and cafés of Copenhagen. It was Fashion Week so the city was heaving, packed to the brim with the fashionable, the wannabes, the glitterati, the hangers-on and that most exquisite of creatures – the Danish Girl on a Cycle. Now if you haven’t seen this phenomenon you have missed a treat that no man should miss. There is something unique and singularly Danish about flowing blond hair, a short dress hitched up to thigh level, long legs and high-heeled shoes cruising past on the way to an evening out. Now you need to understand that my appreciation is purely an intellectual concept; cultural and aesthetic, it’s not sexist at all. Here’s some further serious reading, for the enthusiast, with a few pictures thrown in.

We started in a busy and crowded Tivoli and ended, an Italian restaurant, two bars and an Eastern European street party later [which was supplying waitress-served free beer, by the by], at Café Victor. This place is a highlight of Copenhagen and a personal favourite. The evening was warm, despite some light summer rain and the atmosphere nothing less than splendid. Construction was underway for the longest catwalk in the world – a 1600m long carpet that 250 models would stride along the following evening. Copenhagen was in party mood, none more so than the Navy guys sitting near us who were plying a bevy of very pretty girls with pink champagne in exchange for some very model-like posturing in their dress uniform caps. The bars had spilled out to the streets; there was a lot of laughter and noise, an appropriate amount of throwing-up and, of course, those blond girls cycling back and forth. Only Ray Milland knows how I felt next day after I’d crashed at Tove’s apartment but I think it was worth it.

Compare that to Sweden, where an altogether steadier but nonetheless just as silly atmosphere prevails. The Swedes do like a party and, I understand, an occasional drink, but as summer wanes and the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness arrives their thoughts turn to berries. Well, mushrooms too, but mostly berries. They love berries and as the undergrowth of the northern forests grows heavy the eager consumers in the warmer southern bit grow restless for punnets resplendent in the blues, reds and yellows of autumn. Imagine, then, our horror to find that not only is the harvest being ‘outsourced’ to Vietnamese itinerants but that they are also being exploited by the wholesalers. Last week we heard that tragedy stalked the harvesters among the bushes as, like our summer, the autumn was late this year and the berry crop with it. Apparently, the 300 guest workers had to pay their own travel, lodging and food and were contractually obligated to pick 90 kilos of lingonberries, 50 kilos of blueberries or 20 kilos of cloudberries per day in order to be paid their wages. The late crop meant no berries and that meant no wages. No money meant no food so it all came to our attention and that of the police when hunger drove them to go foraging in the woods with – listen to this – catapults and bows and arrows to shoot birds and animals to eat. I haven’t quite understood if the Swedes are alarmed at the Vietnamese workers’ plight or the potential loss of wildlife but I am greatly concerned that the berry-pickers appear not to have been told that a catapult will not stop an elk or a brown bear even if you get close enough to hit it over the head.

A little further south, but still in the forest, three middle-aged German women went for a hike and got lost. So what? Well, like a lot of Germans and, in some respects like our Vietnamese visitors, these ladies had a strong connection with nature. Instead of picking berries they were tripping through shady dells and across sun-dappled clearings stark naked. Whether or not they didn’t know the area or hadn’t brought a map [no pockets, of course] they soon realised they were lost and struck out for any signs of civilisation. Nothing, not even a Vietnamese berry-picker hunting birds. The women were part of a naturist group vacationing in a woodland cottage and the remainder, alarmed that the three hadn’t returned, called the police. The report in The Local, my source of important news, didn’t state that they had to use a land-line but I have spent a moment or two wondering how or where you carry an iPhone 4 when you are stark naked. Anyway, after wandering around until 10.30pm below circling police helicopters and, most embarrassingly, approaching sniffer dogs the ladies chanced upon their rented cottage and were welcomed into the naked bosoms of their naturist companions.

This has all made me feel very uneasy. One of the things I’ve always liked about Swedish forests is the solitude and the dearth of people. Sitting on my deck with a glass of red wine this evening I was wondering just what lurks beyond the garden fence and it was safe to go down to the woods today.