Monday, 27 October 2014

Copenhagen sightseeing - from the sublime to the not so sublime!

A cruise on a canal boat is the ideal way to get an overview of Copenhagen so when my good friends, Diana and Ian, happened to be in Copenhagen at the same time as myself and family it seemed like a good way to spend time together in a relaxing way while viewing many of the city's famous attractions. And so it proved to be, gliding along past historic and modern buildings, interesting landmarks, between houseboats, floating cafes and under very low bridges.
The Danish Royal Opera House
Interesting waterfront architecture.

 Danish architects have to be amongst the most innovative in the world. It was, after all, a Dane, Jorn Utzon, who designed the world renowned Sydney Opera House. I am a great fan of Danish design in all aspects from architecture and furniture to jewellery and homewares.  The cruise gave us the opportunity to view some fine examples of Danish architecture, including the spectacular Royal Danish Opera House (2001), designed by Henning Larsen and The Black Diamond  National Library and Museum(1999) designed by Schmidt Hammer Larsen, and so named because the sparkling water of the canal glitters on its black granite cladding.

The tower of Vor Freisers Kirke

 After cruising past the sleek Royal Yacht Dannebrog, at anchor and bedecked with
immaculately attired crew, we also viewed historic points of interest including the Royal Palace the unusual Vor Freisers Kirke, with it's external staircase winding around the spire, and, of course, the Little Mermaid, which was surrounded by hordes of camera toting tourists.

Spot the Little Mermaid

Library, Christiansborg Palace

Later in the day, and on the strong recommendation of our hotel concierge, we decided to walk to Christiania, a "free state" in the heart of Copenhagen.  Just as we set off the rain came so we took refuge in Christiansborg Palace which proved to be a very happy interlude. This vast palace houses Denmark's Parliament, The Prime Minister's office, the Supreme Court and is also used as the Royal Family's reception rooms. There was something uniquely Danish about the room  interiors - in the colour schemes, paintings and furnishings - a style which was new to me. Each room of the many we viewed was interesting, the dining table for 50 being particularly impressive, but the most stunning room of all was vast and hung with huge, brightly coloured, modern tapestries portraying 1000 years of history of Denmark and the world.

Tapestries at Christiansborg Palace

The tapestries were a gift from Danish business to Queen Margarethe II for her 50th birthday but took 30 weavers 10 years to make so were finally hung on the Queen's 60th birthday Each tapestry was complex and demanded our time and attention. This was no problem to any of us including my young grandson who was totally captivated by them.  We spent quite some time there, a serendipitous change of plans due to the sudden rain shower.
Detail from a Palace tapestry

And then the sun came out so on we went towards Christiania, first visiting  Vor Freisers Kirke on the way.  I was very keen to climb the tower but, unfortunately, on this particular day it was closed.  I think the less enthusiastic members of the family were rather pleased!

Photos are not permitted inside Christiania, for obvious reasons!
A short walk and we were in Christiania.  This so called "free state"  was
founded in 1971 when a mixture of hippies, squatters, homeless people and anarchists stormed and took over a disused army barracks. Set on 84 acres it is now home to around 1000 people who live by their own rules, thumb their noses at Danish law and seem to be forever stuck in a 1970's time warp.  It is, to say the least, a weird place. The main street is called Pusher St, which kind of gives you a clue as to what goes on there.  I have never before seen  mountains of hash being sold openly to all and sundry.  It was interesting to note that there was a constant stream of people going in and out of the commune so it is clearly well patronised by other residents of Copenhagen.  It appears that the police and local authorities turn a blind eye to this trade which is illegal under Danish law.  I found Christiania to be depressing and demoralising.  Groups of spaced out pot smokers were lying around on stairways and benches, some looking like very sad individuals indeed, clearly wasted on harder drugs. Christiania is said to be opposed to the trade of hard drugs but it is common knowledge that this also takes place there.  It is scruffy and untidy and most of the buildings are covered in vast psychedelic murals.  There is a market where stalls sell 1970s type clothing, maxi length tie dyed dresses and T shirts sporting cannabis emblems.  Apparently Christiania is the 4th largest tourist attraction in the city and I can understand it, to a degree, but I couldn't get out of there fast enough and was a bit surprised by the concierge's recommendation.  With two small children in tow we were concerned as to how much pot smoke they were ingesting...the air was thick with it.

Monday, 20 October 2014

Copenhagen - Salty Old Queen of the Sea

Every time I say the name Copenhagen the line "Salty Old Queen of the Sea" as sung by Danny Kaye in the 1952 film "Hans Christian Anderson", comes to mind and I can't stop myself from humming it.  It wasn't until I arrived in Copenhagen that I realised how apt that title was. The sea is the life blood of this city which is built on a number of small islands and serviced by canals running right through its heart.  As a New Zealander it is also interesting to note that the city is in the province of Zealand, although New Zealand takes its name, albeit slightly corrupted,  from Zeeland in the Netherlands

It had been a long held desire of mine to visit Denmark, mainly because my parents lived there for a time after I was married and my mother wrote an excellent book about their experiences.  They lived in Aarhus, which I will write about in another post, but also visited Copenhagen and no one can visit Denmark without spending some time in this beautiful city.

I was thrilled to be finally going and fortunate to be travelling with my son, daughter-in-law, five year old grandson and four month old grand daughter.  When you travel alone a lot of the time it is fun to share experiences with others and especially to get a five year old's unbiased, and, at times, amusing, perspective on things.

The Copenhagen Strand, centre
Our hotel, The Copenhagen Strand, was right on the wide Chritianshavn canal which leads directly to Nyhavn, (new harbour)the picturesque and much photographed tourist centre of Copenhagen. It was an ideal location, being also in walking distance to many other of Copenhagen's attractions.

Our first night, arriving tired and hungry and looking for somewhere inexpensive to eat - be warned Nyhavn has tourist prices - we eventually found a hamburger restaurant called Hot Buns.  Great food at reasonable, for Denmark!, prices.  It took a wee while for the penny to drop re the name but drop it did once we noticed all the very attractive waitresses wore tiny, skin tight shorts.  Hot buns indeed.


Hans Christian Anderson's home, narrow building, centre
Next morning, I arose early and did one of my favourite things, an early morning walk.  I love this time of day. I enjoyed watching Copenhagen wake, seeing fishermen preparing their boats, business men heading to work, still sleepy people clutching take away coffees, parents carting their children to day care or kindergarten on specially modified bicycles with child carrier carts attached either back of front, strolling beautiful, quiet Nyhavn before the hordes of tourists descended.  The golden early morning sun striking the tall, ice cream coloured, town houses lining the canal made Nyhavn the stuff of fairy tales, appropriately since it was home to Hans Christian for18 years. Historic wooden ships, yachts and fishing boats line the canal and their crews were sitting on deck enjoying coffee and the morning paper. 

Light house ship, XVII Gedser Rev

 I was intrigued by the light house ship, XVII Gedser Rev, now a museum.  I have to admit I had never before heard of these ships which were anchored permanently in locations where it was too dangerous or unsuitable to build a lighthouse. 

Nyhavn at dusk, lined with cafes
But Nyhavn wasn't always so beautiful, sweet, pretty and calm.  In the 17th and 18th centuries it was a notorious sea port with inevitable drinking, gambling and prostitution rife. Now it's trendy cafes and bars are packed, for lunch and dinner, with well heeled tourists. We found it far too expensive to eat there, however, acting on the tip of a friend found Nyhavn Pizza, a matter of 10 yards from the canal front, a cheap and cheerful pizzeria which we frequented on 3 evenings.  Not Danish cuisine, I know, but the perfect place to take children and feel relaxed, comfortable and welcome. And we made up for it at breakfast with the superb hotel Danish spread of cold meats, cheeses, boiled eggs and pastries.

Fresh fish smorrebrod on a fishing boat
Another evening we enjoyed a delicious fish smorrebrod (Danish open sandwich) on a
fishing boat anchored in the canal outside our hotel.  The fish was caught that day, so fresh it was almost jumping.

Nyhavn became our local spot during our stay in Copenhagen.  We walked it every day at least once, usually more often, and came to love it but there was much more to explore in Copenhagen.

Footnote: My mother, Joyce Reid's book, now out of print, was called  "It Was better in Winter"

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

British Houses of Parliament - an inside view

On a fine, sunny, morning my son and I caught the train into central London and strolled across Westminster Bridge.  I had no idea where we were heading and it  wasn't until we were at the foot of Big Ben that my  son told me he had booked us an inside tour of the British Houses of Parliament.  What a fantastic surprise, the buildings had always held a mystique for me  and I had never thought it possible to set foot inside those hallowed halls.  Needless to say I was pretty excited as we joined a queue with other excited people to pass through full airport style security before entering the buildings.
British Parliament/ Westminster Palace (free photo from the web)

Parliament is housed in Westminster Palace, the first palace on this site having been built in the 11th century, and was, up until the 16th century when large parts were destroyed by fire, the main residence of the ruling monarch. It has been the centre of parliament since the 13th century and is why you will often hear the British parliament referred to as "Westminster".

The tours, which last 90 minutes and are available only when parliament is in recess, take visitors through 11 key rooms. As luck would have it I was in London at the right time.  It required forward planning on the part of my thoughtful son, however, as tickets sell out pretty quickly. Photography is not permitted in all but a couple of rooms so I have used here some copyright free photographs courtesy British Houses of Parliament. Click on the photos to see them in more detail.

Here is a brief outline of some of the rooms we saw on the tour:

Westminster Hall
WESTMINSTER HALL All tours gather in this vast, impressive, cathedral-like hall, dating from 1097. While waiting for our tour to start we had plenty of time to admire the wooden beamed, vaulted ceiling, ponder the history of the hall, spot the carved angels on the rafters and marvel at the many famous people who have passed through.  The hall was used as a court for the trials of Charles I, Sir Thomas More, Cardinal John Fisher and Guy Fawkes, among others.  Royals lie in state here, the last one being Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother and, in an unusual honour afforded to a non royal, so did Winston Churchill. Here also foreign leaders have been given the rare privilege of speaking.  In the 20th and 21st centuries speakers have included Charles de Gaulle, Nelson Mandela, Pope Benedict XIII and Barack Obama.

The Royal Robing Room (HP photo)
THE ROYAL ROBING ROOM  is used by the monarch to prepare for the state opening of parliament.  The walls of the room are painted with large frescoes depicting the legend of King Arthur with themes of chivalry and valour.  These frescoes were lovingly chosen by Prince Albert for his beloved Queen Victoria.

The Royal Gallery (HP photo)

THE ROYAL GALLERY After donning ceremonial robes the monarch then processes through this exquisite royal gallery to the House of Lords.  Once again large paintings
adorn the walls, including a depiction of Nelson at the battle of Trafalgar and many portraits of royalty.

THE PEERS LOBBY has a clubby, library type atmosphere and is where the peers meet for informal discussions and to send and receive messages.

CENTRAL LOBBY 18 metres across and 23 metres to the centre of the vaulted ceiling, is the dividing point between the House of Lords and the House of Commons.  If doors to both were open it would be possible to see both the royal throne in the Lords and the speakers chair in the Commons.  This is the place often seen on television where reporters interview politicians.

MEMBERS LOBBY Similar to the Peers Lobby but plainer it contains busts and statues of former Prime Ministers and message boards for the MPs.  It was fun to search the message board for familiar names.

The House of Lords (HP photo)
LORDS CHAMBER  is lavishly decorated in scarlet leather and gold with beautiful
stained glass windows above.  At the end of the chamber is an ornate gold canopy above a spectacular gold throne.  The monarch is seated on this throne for the state opening of parliament. Tiny loud speakers are inserted in the back of the scarlet benches to assist, according to our guide, the elderly, hard of hearing Lords who may be quietly dozing through a debate.

House of Commons (HP photo)
HOUSE OF COMMONS CHAMBER is austere and in stark contrast to the lavish decoration in the House of Lords.  This is a relatively new part of the building, the previous House of Commons having been destroyed in the blitz of the second world war. The green benches will be familiar to most from television reports.  Monarchs are not permitted to enter the House of Commons,  the last monarch to do so was Charles 1 and he came to a sticky end!  Lines are painted on either side of the house over which neither the government representatives nor the opposition may go.  A story goes that these lines are more than two sword lengths apart to ensure that debates did not become bloody, but there is no substance to this story since swords have never been permitted in parliament.

Those are some, but not all, of the rooms we visited.  I loved this tour, revelled in the fascinating history of the place, enjoyed the commentary and anecdotes from our articulate guide and was more than a little overwhelmed by the historical events that had taken place within those walls. 

I would highly recommend this as one of the best things to do in London...just make sure you plan well ahead.  Special thanks to my are a gem!

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Hong Kong - - Nan Lian Gardens and the Chi Lin Nunnery - tranquility amidst the hustle and bustle

  I love Hong Kong and have been there many times, both for work and leisure. I have always thoroughly enjoyed the vibrancy and colour of the streets, the people, the food, just the plain excitement of the place.  As a single woman I have always felt safe out on my own until late at night walking amongst the crowds who throng the streets until early morning. Sadly, the city has been very much on my mind the last few days, for the wrong reasons. I feel for Hong Kong's  residents as they lock horns with mainland China over freedom and democracy. I sincerely hope an outcome is reached which will be satisfactory to all parties concerned.

Thinking about Hong Kong has reminded me of a very special place there that I visited last year. Each time I go to Hong Kong I like to go to at least one place I have never been before.  Last year it was the Nan Lian Garden and the adjoining Chi Lin Nunnery.  What a wonderful find! I am a great fan of Chinese and Japanese gardens so I was really in my element at Nan Lian.  Set on 3.5 hectares the garden is designed in the Tang Dynasty style using the four essential elements of hills, rocks, water and timber structures.  I happily wandered the paths of this oasis of tranquillity in busy, crowded, Hong Kong, spotting no more than a couple of other people along the way.  Apparently it is extremely busy on weekends so I suggest going on a weekday to most fully appreciate the peaceful atmosphere of the garden.

The tea house and carp pond Nan Lian Garden

The gardens are very carefully maintained

Chi Lin Nunnery
Apartment buildings tower above

Opposite the garden, and with direct access is the Chi Lin Nunnery, a Buddhist monastery. This is also in the Tang Dynasty style but is more austere and was my favourite part of the complex.  I had it all to myself so relished sitting in quiet contemplation by the lotus pond listening to the trickling fountains and the monks chanting, all the while trying not to notice the tall residential apartment buildings towering above.   I eventually realised that the chanting was a recording. No matter, it added greatly to the ambience of this serene and tranquil place.
Lotus pond Chi Lin Nunnery


The gardens and nunnery are located in Hollywood, Hong Kong.  From downtown Kowloon take the MTR to Yau Ma Tei and change for Hollywood. The gardens are directly across the road from the station which is below the Hollywood Plaza.  There is no entry fee to either the gardens or the nunnery.  The gardens are listed as the number 4 attraction in Hong Kong on Trip Advisor and the Nunnery is listed as number 5.  I think they are highly deserving of those ratings and strongly recommend a visit.  You won't be disappointed.