Week 2: Day 7 – Day 14
20th – 26th December 2016
Arriving in Europe
On arrival in Denmark, we blearily stepped off the plane into a cold wintry evening. The cold seeps in through the gaps in the airport bubble where the plane meets the ground. Airport staff joke in Danish. The airport is small, neat, tidy, Nordic. We let the crowd rush past and find a corner to drop the bags and pull out jumpers and jackets, scarves and beanies.
Copenhagen Airport is small, and soon we’re through customs and into the main hall, with trains departing, taxis lines up, ATMs dispensing kroner.
We take a cab to our apartment rented through Roomorama, but there’s a big hiccup and we cannot stay there. Luckily our host has arranged for a family room in the modern, well-appointed Urban House Hostel tucked in behind the railway station. She is kindly paying the difference plus our taxi fare there so we cannot complain. We are happy to be warm and together.
It feels like 1am, and so we let jet lag takeover just this once.
Next morning, a little late, we’re up and out into the chill grey of the Danish capital. The boys were up at 0300 for a late night stroll, and we’re all a bit out of sequence.
Our first objective is a reasonably priced breakfast, which we find down a side lane snaking away from the main walking street, Strøget, in a tiny shop where two ladies prepare rows and rows of immaculate open sandwiches. For us they slice thick roast pork, and place it in a salad bun. It’s the Flæsketeg, and it’s hearty and filling. As we feast around the one tiny table outside, one of the ladies gives us a huge meatball, lovingly sliced. “A gift for you” she beams. A welcome addition to our picnic lunch.
We wander through the old town, coming across the old quay of Gammel Strand, pausing at the main department store, and taking in Nyhavn. Our route takes us through grand squares, under arches, and along the harbour, landing up, inevitably, at the little mermaid, who sits on her rock, surrounded by none but wind-chilled tourists. For some reason we are all drawn here, though she sits on her rock as a bit of an after-thought to the town itself.
Across the ramparts of The Kastellat fort, we can catch the No 26 bus back to the hostel, which is nestled in a red-light district behind the railway station, but which is sleek and modern and bereft of a reception desk – no keys, only a check-in code.
We form one of several groups cooking pasta and muttering about the price of food in this northern capital, and chat until bedtime.
Next morning it’s a free walking tour for Graham, Reuben and Pamela, which covers much of the ground we took the previous day, with somewhat more detail, historical context and local humour. Reuben stole the show with his charming smile and his witty replies to the guide.
We head back on the same bus, collect our things and catch a train to Viby, where we are swept up in the welcoming arms of our couchsurfing hosts Nini and Christian.
Their house is accustomed to surfers, and soon fills with all manner of conversations, boys chit-chatting and cooking. Nini heads off for a Winter solstice dinner with friends, while we sit down to a warming chicken soup. It’s so cold outside that when dinner is finished the whole soup pot is covered up and set on the verandah to refrigerate.
The next day is a change down in gear. After a hearty breakfast of coffee, bread and cheese (and a warming slug of schnapps!) we head out for a walk in this forested corner of Denmark. Our hosts show us the well-tilled fields and misty Oak forests near their home. Among the gnarled boles is a ‘old woman tree’, who will grant your wish if you give her a hug.
The afternoon is spent indoors, learning to make traditional Christmas heart decorations, and putting together an enormous shepherd’s pie and local parsnips for dinner.
On the Friday, as most of Denmark hurries about it’s preparations for Christmas, we take a train for nearby Roskilde, an ancient Viking city, and home to some notable sights. The town is crowned with a magnificent cathedral, burial-place of all of the ancient realm’s kings and queens. Beyond the cathedral, Roskilde, slopes away down to it’s fjord, a stretch of water which cuts through the eastern half of Denmark and forms the valuable shortcut which lends the city it’s strategic advantage.
A thousand years ago, Vikings saw this and sought to protect their city from attack by sinking a barrage of ships across key parts of the fjord. These boats were re-discovered in the 1960s, raised from their muddy graves, and installed as the heart of a fascinating museum and historic boat-building complex.
The five raised ships give a good idea of the span of the Viking empire: small coastal traders, various warships, and a large cargo ship built from timbers harvested above the Viking city of Dublin. The materials and techniques used have been studied and recreated, and now a small fleet of a dozen or so ships has been constructed and sailed based on the lessons of the Roskilde ships. A workshop methodically churns out boats of various kinds, crafted using menacing looking axes and carefully selected and seasoned curves of timber.
In the evening, we take a bus to a village nearby where we share dinner with Mads and Ida, two couchsurfing hosts who live nearby. It’s nice to swap notes and conversations in their colourfully artistic house, while the children run around with lightsabres and viking swords.
Christmas Eve, and it’s time to move onwards from Denmark. With a cheerful wave our train departs, rumbling southward across the flat, wintry landscape. Before long the fields give way to the windswept shore, and our train eases onto the M/F Princesse Benedikte, train and vehicle ferry, for the 45 minute Baltic crossing to Puttgarten in Germany.
Christmas in Bochum
We are handed onwards by a series of trains, stopping in Hamburg and Dortmund, finally we unload our bags at Bochum, where waiting for us is our friend Paul, who’s couchsurfing daughter Charlotte has once again invited us to the family home for a brief but welcoming Christmas.
In the evening we are treated to a Christmas Eve service at the family’s local church, where they all sing in the choir. This is the most special night of the festive period for most people in Europe, and it’s a kind treat to be offered a place in the circle on this family occasion.
We walk home for a delicious Christmas feast of turkey and chicken, potatoes, crisp wine and warming soup our tired travelling boys staying awake long enough for dessert, before curling up in bed.
Our stay in Germany is all too quickly over – the next morning, after a full breakfast and some hearty carol singing in two languages, we clamber aboard the train for Dusseldorf, and then connect to a gleaming ICE train for Basel SBB.
The German train efficiently whisks us down the Rhine, an unexpected joy being the travel through the central valleys, past castle after castle, looming out of the gloomy afternoon, clinging to the mountainsides or perched on an island in the mighty river.
Darkness descends, and, after some more changes we roll into Aarau, where our friend Tobias waits for us on the platform with his skateboard.
In a few minutes we’re in the family home, the scent of a warm raclette being readied wafting throughout.
Suitably refreshed, the next morning we all climb into Tobias’ 7 seat Tesla, and whir along the road to Bern. The Sabretoothed Chickens were here not long ago, but Pamela hasn’t seen the stately grandeur of the Swiss capital before. It’s cold, but the sun is shining and the city is looking splendid. Where last time the boys ran among the water maze in the main city square to cool of from summer heat, this time we munch on roast chestnuts. The Bern bears are sensibly hibernating.
In the afternoon, we continue our high-tech journey – the Tesla whisks us south west, past a hazy Lake Geneva, up the great valley of the Rhone, and finally off and up to the ski resort of La Tzoumaz, where Tobias’ wife Susannah and their two young sons wait for us in a warm chalet, with dinner in the oven…