Europe 2013 Archives

Northern Europe from the air

05 June 2013 | Permalink
4 pictures

A small set of photographs taken over Norway and Latvia, showing landscapes seen from the air.



Riga, Latvia -- 05 June 2013 | Permalink

My first impression of Riga was of spires. Or perhaps not the very first. The first things I registered on the bus from the airport were buildings - some slightly dilapidated but rather pretty wooden houses in a leafy suburb, a handful of grim ‘Commies in boxes’ Soviet-style apartment blocks, a rather more modern shopping mall. But then, crossing the Vansu Bridge, you get a view of the city’s skyline, and it’s dominated by spires; the squat black belfry of the Cathedral, the improbable green spike of St Peter’s, and a handful more.

Later, exploring on foot, the most lasting impression was of greenery. Riga is a handsome city. A little distance from my guesthouse, Alberta iela is an explosion of Art Nouveau, with massive, colorful facades laden with caryatids, animals, scrollwork and grimacing faces. The city’s architecture seems to have come through Communism well, so that the remnants of its prosperous past are everywhere; just when you think you’ve seen all the Jugendstil that can exist anywhere, you turn a corner and stumble on another block. Most has been beautifully restored; a few buildings are in less good repair.

But it’s the parks that still predominate. Walking from Central Riga to the old city, you quickly find yourself in a belt of lush green, the Kronvalda Park, with its meandering canal. On the far side of the river, the Uzaras Park is less manicured, but far larger. Even walking around Agenskalans, which my guidebook likes to describe as a gritty, working-class neighborhood, I was struck by the sheer profusion of greenery, the slightly-shabby wooden houses half-buried in a riot of trees and bushes.

Riga is apparently styled “the Paris of the North”, and based on the elegance of the Art Nouveau districts, the broad cobbled streets and the imposing monuments, I can see the resemblance. But Paris is seldom so green. Parisian parks tend to be rather precise and sterile, with formal walks and gravel most often taking the place of grass. Central Riga is a succession of green spaces, trees and buildings sharing the city on what seems like an almost equal footing.


Cape Kolka

Kolka, Kurzeme, Latvia -- 07 June 2013 | Permalink
4 pictures

“Enchantingly desolate and hauntingly beautiful,” my guidebook said of Cape Kolka; “like a trip to the end of the earth.”

I’m a sucker for descriptions like that. If the Earth has an end, you’ll find me there, snapping pictures. I shouldered my backpack and headed down to the Riga bus station to hop the afternoon bus for the promised wasteland.

My first suspicion that the writer of the guidebook might have been laying it on a little thick came when I got off the bus in the village of Kolka. Far from the Abomination of Desolation, I found myself in a rather pretty ribbon village, low houses strung out on either side of the road. Lilacs - white, pale or deep purple - exploded from the hedgerows. Creepers twined on anything that looked like it might be suitable for twining on. Three pleasant rural churches offered salvation for the soul in varying denominations. The sun smiled down on everything.

I found myself a place to stay, dropped my pack, and wandered up the road towards the Cape. “The windswept moonscape at the waning edge of the cape … could have you dreaming for days,” the guidebook promised me. I quickened my pace in anticipation.

The sight that greeted me did not, sadly, live up to the promise. Beyond the pines, a wide ribbon of sand sloped gently down to the Baltic. Tiny wavelets, propelled by an unremitting onshore breeze, crashed minutely onto the yellow-brown shore. Far off over the blue waters, the red spike of the Kolka lighthouse stuck out of the sea. To one side, a downed forest of sun-bleached and beached tree trunks did their best to hint at the awful fury of the winter storms, but under the summer sun, everything looked benign and tranquil.

It struck me as I wandered along the apparently endless sands that Cape Kolka in midsummer looked not so much like the ends of the earth as the place where the Creator finally ran out of inspiration. “I dunno,” He must have said, “let’s have some sand here. And pine trees. Lots and lots of pine trees. They all look pretty much alike, but honestly, I’m too tired to think any more. Just stick a beach there, a forest there, some water there, and we’re done. Maybe throw in some seagulls if you like - they’ll look nicely littoral. Don’t go overboard, though.”

I walked quite a long way down the beach, hoping for something that would justify the prose in my guidebook. As I walked, I realized that things were a little more varied than I had first thought. A few silver birch stood out among the pines. The skittish gulls on the sandbars offshore were mixed in with ducks (possibly scoters). A small flotilla of swans bobbed improbably on the water, and some kind of small plover stood contemplatively on a spur of sand. A moonscape it might not be, but it wasn’t entirely without life or interest.

I may be simply hard to impress. After all, I spent large parts of my childhood in Caithness, which looks like the ends of the earth pretty much three hundred and sixty five days a year, rain or (improbable) shine. I’m guessing, however, that the writer visited Kolka in winter, when winds from the Arctic slicing down across the Baltic at ninety knots probably put a very different complexion on the place. Even under a serene and almost cloudless summer sky, I could imagine the potential.


Exit, pursued by a bee

Kolka, Kurzeme, Latvia -- 08 June 2013 | Permalink
6 pictures

One thing to be said for the part of Kurzeme around Kolka is that it is flat. In fact, it’s as flat as … well, as flat as a very flat thing. That makes it ideal for bicycling. Or so I thought.

The first problem that I noticed was the monotony. As I rode down a wide, very straight road - so wide and straight that even if I hadn’t known it was originally built as an emergency airstrip during the Soviet era, I might have guessed - I felt the unending succession of pine trees start to drag on my soul. I looked for anything that might break the repetition. Look, there’s a stand of bog cotton. Wow, a silver birch. Hey, nice cloud.

Leaving the road at Vaide, I followed the signs to the Ragu Kolecija - the “horn collection”, a museum of antlers painstakingly assembled by local forest rangers, and one of the big tourist draws in these parts. Once I actually got there, I decided that I was not yet quite so understimulated that browsing through hundreds of assorted antlers seemed like a good idea, but it was nice to get off the wide flat road and bump along some sandy forest trails for a while.

Pitragi, a little further on, had some mildly pretty houses. Kosrags, for no reason I could easily understand, had an immense pink duck and not very much more. Then it was back onto the main road through the pines for the final leg down to Mazirbe.

The Liiv museum was closed. I bought some water at the village store, and braced myself for another twenty kilometers of pine trees on the return journey. I swung my leg over the saddle, put my foot to the pedal and then, out of nowhere, ‘they’ appeared.

I had noticed earlier in the day that the local insects appeared to have difficulty avoiding obstacles. From time to time, I’d hear a sudden drone and then something the size of my thumb would blunder into me with an audible smack, before buzzing stupidly away into the distance. I don’t know if their ultimate goal was to end it all by flying into the open mouth of a passing cyclist, or if some kind of strange prestige attached to flying into something that wasn’t a pine tree. The occasional collision, however, quickly became routine.

Now, however, they came not as single spies, but as entire battalions. Suddenly, I was surrounded by a whole swarm of large insects that all seemed determined to fly into me, or land on me, or weave disconcertingly around my head. I couldn’t immediately see what they were: bees, or hornets, or some species of large fly, but they were all around me, zig-zagging and circling. I waved my arms ineffectually. They dodged nimbly, buzzing scornfully.

Distrusting their intentions, I did the only thing I could do. I pedaled as fast as I could. For a few moments, the acceleration provided some relief. The insects that had been buzzing back and forth in front of my face disappeared. Then, as soon as I slowed just slightly, they were back. I accelerated again and they vanished, only to reappear the second that I slowed down.

I quickly figured out the rules. If I pedaled like hell, I could keep them behind me, but I could never get rid of them. Looking down, I could see my shadow on the road, accompanied by a handful of little black shadows that dipped and dived in my wake. I rode hard and fast, but the insects - now identified as some kind of large black fly about the size of a bulked-up horsefly - weren’t giving up. You don’t think of flies as being fast movers in the long haul, but these guys kept up with me, kilometer after kilometer, while I ducked my head and pedaled for all I was worth. Even a headwind that should have worked in my favor couldn’t keep them off my back.

Spurred on by my unwanted admirers, I covered the homeward leg in a fraction of the time it had taken me to ride out. If the Mazirbe-Kolka Dash ever becomes a recognized cycling event, I flatter myself that I’ve already got a qualifying time under my belt. Pine trees flew past, and I was at Pitragi before I knew it.

There, my salvation appeared. Two muscular figures in spandex zipped past, going the other way. Almost at once, most of my escort seemed to vanish. I don’t know whether the other cyclists simply looked tastier, or if the flies decided that two young giants on real racing bikes offered more of a challenge than some tourist on a mountain bike. Whatever the reason, the buzzing cloud seemed to evaporate. A couple stayed with me for another five hundred meters and then they too fell away, leaving me to admire the pine trees unmolested as I rode on towards Kolka.



Riga, Latvia -- 10 June 2013 | Permalink
5 pictures

All week, the poplar trees at the northern end of Lençu iela have been shedding an almost continuous stream of white fluff, which blows slowly down the street, then turns the corner to settle on the sidewalks of Strelniecku iela in thick drifts. The gently-blowing white fluff lends a slightly surreal air to the otherwise utilitarian street.

When the thunderstorm began, the first strong downdrafts shook all the fluff out of the trees in an instant. Suddenly, the air was so dense with windblown poplar seed that it looked almost like a kind of patchy fog. A few minutes later, the rain began, and in moments the fluff had all been washed out of the air, only a few pieces continuing to circle slowly through the downpour.

The rain lasted for perhaps ten minutes, and by the time that it started to slacken off, the sun was already breaking through the clouds. A double rainbow formed, one intense bow lower down, with a fainter duplicate above it. I grabbed my camera and ran down to the street, with the idea of trying to get a shot of the double bow over the Art Nouveau buildings at the intersection of Strelniecku iela and Alberta iela.

When I reached the corner, the rainbow was already starting to fade. The outer bow had gone and the inner bow was already beginning to lose its brightness. I took a few pictures and then began to walk back up Strelniecku iela towards my guesthouse. Abruptly, I stopped, and took out my camera again.

The sky overhead was filled with a bizarre cloud formation, rounded masses like bubbles descending from the underside of the cloudbase. I had seen pictures of mammatus clouds before, but never seen them with my own eyes. I walked north to try to get a clear view, unobstructed by buildings. Outside the fire station, a solitary fireman looked at me as if wondering why the foreigner was staring open-mouthed at the sky. He barely spared the clouds a second glance. Apparently, the mammatus were a novelty only to me.


The art of conversation

Vilnius, Lithuania -- 11 June 2013 | Permalink

On my arrival in Vilnius, I met up with M. as arranged, only to discover that she had almost entirely lost her voice, due to a throat infection. To conserve what was left of her voice, she used my iPod Touch to write out messages to me, leaving me with a lengthy and sometimes bewildering record of our asymmetric conversation.

Tactful as always, I suggested that she needed a beret and some white greasepaint. She tapped back:

am not the only mime
White with zinc sunscreen

We then moved on to discussing our food options:

Pizza til midnight
More testosterone in old town

If I hadn’t seen her start to type ‘restaurants’ before auto-correct had its way, that might have left me severely puzzled.

We also talked about Riga and Vilnius

We can go there Otis the big baltic port no was
Vilnius has been small for a long time
It was rich here a millennium ago
Sculptures that look like the chess set 
in the British museum
Cars here are big like the states

and the language barrier

How did you find communicating
Pharmacy medic speaks good wnglis
All the beggars in the park acros the street speak German
Once I was known as foreign and German I could not sit there

When we left the bar, we walked in front of the cathedral, with its more than life-size statues, one of which appears to be wearing kitty-ears. I hazarded a guess that it was probably Moses, and the projections were probably the horns that Moses -- and, by extension, all Jews -- were once believed to have had. M.’s only response was:

W t f

Another of the features of the cathedral square is a statue of an armored and caped knight, leaning forward from his pedestal at a perilous angle, while his horse trots up behind him as if ready to give him a shove. M. commented:

Like that old chess set it's all mindinaugus

which made it my turn to say “Wtf?” (She later corrected herself; it's Gediminas, not Mindaugas).

M. has been kept busy since her arrival:

I have been asked to take many photos
Silky people don't know my pics are blurry

We had supper:

R's schmecht gut
This is going to make me sneeze
More blue cheese than dill
P m g I has something gross yesterday 
I think it was smoked yogurt

before our conversation trailed off into small-talk:

Breakfast is good
How far was the bus station
A mile
You have not Ben wearing
Enough sunscreen


Two wheels of folly

Aukštaitija National Park, Lithuania -- 18 June 2013 | Permalink

“And you follow this hiking trail …” said the woman from tourist information. “If it’s a hiking trail, will I be able to ride a bike on it?” I asked. “Of course, of course,” she said.

My hotel advertised bicycles for rent, but when I asked, none were available. “No bicycle today,” said the girl at the bar, in a tone that suggested that Comanche bicycle rustlers had descended from the hills during the night and driven off the entire herd. I ended up renting one instead from the local mobile phone store, which seemed to do double (or triple, if you count bicycle rental) duty as a leather goods shop.

The bicycle that I finally chose – having rejected two rather sedate-looking road bikes on the grounds that they probably weren’t up to the rigors of off-roading – looked as if it had been designed by someone who knew something about mountain bikes but had overlooked the part about them being rugged and sturdy. It was a rather delicate-looking object that didn’t seem to fit in any obvious niche, as if it had been designed to fulfil a range of functions with equal inefficiency. This turned out to be more than merely a surface impression. First gear proved to be as unhelpful on steep hills as sixth was on the flat. The brakes exerted not so much stopping power as a mild restraining effect, the metaphorical equivalent of placing a hand on the bicycle’s figurative shoulder and murmuring “I say, steady on, old chap.” On rough terrain, pieces – fortunately mostly inessential – tended to fall off.

The first part of my journey was uneventful, if you overlook the large pig truck that I was forced to tailgate for a half-kilometer, immersed in an eye-watering cloud of Essence of Hog that caused roadside vegetation to turn brown and small birds to drop limply to the ground. It was when I hit the aforementioned hiking trail that I knew I was in trouble.

The trail began with a modestly steep downhill section liberally sown with tree roots and crowded with actual trees whose largest ambition in life seemed to be to reach out and caress the skull of passing cyclists. This gave way to some stretches of black mud deep enough to bog an ox, and then switched back to the tree-root slalom again. More mud, more roots. Lather, rinse, repeat. The high ground was unattainable; the low ground was occupied by a swamp. It was, in short, less than ideal cycling terrain.

Luckily, this particularly nerve-wracking section was relatively short. I gathered up the pieces of the bicycle jolted loose by the tree roots and emerged shaken but unspilled into an open stretch labeled “skulptūra takas”. Energetically primitive wooden carvings leered at me from the undergrowth as I pedaled on my way.

A little before Meironys, the sculpture trail gave way to actual blacktop, and I was able to pick up a small measure of speed. An enormous stork, approximately the size of a fighter-bomber but eerily silent, glided overhead. I didn’t see any sign of a baby, so I presumed it must be returning to base after making the drop-off.

All too soon, I passed through Meironys - the red line through the name of the village on the road sign had an ominous “abandon hope all ye who leave here” quality - and the blacktop ran out. From here until Puziniškis, the trail reverted to rutted sand, probably the least forgiving of all possible road surfaces for anything on two wheels. On downhill stretches, the bike fish-tailed; uphill stretches were simply impossible, the deep sand draining any vestige of momentum I might have been able to acquire. I ended up getting off and walking a lot.

The trail was largely unmarked, but here and there a brown sign with a cloverleaf symbol hinted at some site of special interest. Unfortunately, the text was in Lithuanian, making it difficult to guess what was actually on offer. I ended up trying to guess from context, hesitating between alternatives such as “group of pine trees that look just like all the other pine trees” and – based on the density of spider-webs blocking the trail – “Lair of Shelob”.

When I finally reached Puziniškis, a pleasant little village perched on the crest of a long, sandy hill, a sign helpfully informed me that the entire village had been destroyed by fire in 1933. It added cryptically that “the oak and the linden have witnessed every stage of the Lithuanian struggle for independence”. None of the oaks that I could see looked as if they were old enough to drink, much less to have witnessed even the most recent episode of Lithuania’s long struggle for independence, and there was no sign of any linden at all. Assuming that the oak and the linden hadn’t been cut down to make signposts and picnic benches, I guessed that they’d probably gone off to smoke a cigarette together.

All the trails out of Puziniškis seemed to end in someone’s back yard. I backtracked, fish-tailed my way back down the sandy track that I’d just struggled up, and followed a different sandy track in the hope that it would lead me to somewhere with more options. To my immeasurable delight, it finally led me to a stretch of paved highway, which eventually led me to the Ginučiai castle mound, one of my nominal objectives. The mound itself was as unspectacular as only a Lithuanian tourist attraction can be, but there was a large wooden signboard featuring an imaginative depiction of what the castle might once have looked like, and a second signboard explaining how the Livonian knights had, once again, been handed their asses by a better-organized enemy on this very spot. I dutifully climbed to the top and admired a panoramic view of scenic but largely-indistinguishable lakes through a screen of pine trees. It was pretty enough, but all four points of the compass looked remarkably similar. I started to suspect that after a few months squatting on top of this particular mound, looking out over an unchanging landscape that was nine-tenths old-growth pine, the Livonians were simply too depressed to offer any meaningful resistance when the enemy showed up.

I had, by now, had my fill of ‘hiking trails’, and resolved never to leave the paved road again, even if it meant taking the long way back. I swung through Ginučiai village, where a man with a loudhailer was barking orders at a battalion of teenage girls in bikinis, paused briefly to admire the historic water-mill (which would have appeared a great deal more historic if it had actually had a wheel), and then pedaled for home.

On the outskirts of Ignalina, I paused to reattach all the pieces of the bicycle that had fallen off. The woman from the mobile phone shop gave me her best smile as I rode up. “Nice ride?” she inquired brightly. “Delightful,” I told her through gritted teeth. I shook sand and pine needles out of my socks and hobbled away towards my hotel.



London, UK -- 06 December 2013 | Permalink
9 pictures

As I visit London only occasionally, I haven't really had the time to get used to the presence of the Shard, an elongated dagger of glass that broods over the London skyline like a high-tech Orthanc. I set myself the challenge of trying to take some photographs that would show different aspects of the Shard.


London light and dark

London, UK -- 08 December 2013 | Permalink
6 pictures

A small collection of photographs from London, mostly taken in Highgate and Hampstead.


The Land of Mist

London, UK -- 11 December 2013 | Permalink
5 pictures

A small collection of photographs of foggy weather from London and Essex.



Brussels, Belgium -- 13 December 2013 | Permalink
6 pictures

I wanted to revisit Brussels and see how much it had changed since I lived there, many years ago. The answer was that in many ways it seems to have altered surprisingly little. Streets and shops were much as I remembered them, and the wave of destruction and reconstruction of the early 1990s seems to have left much of the city untouched. Businesses I remembered were still there. The Centre Monnaie shopping mall still somehow manages to look vibrant and shabby at the same time, the cocktail menu in the window of "Le Cercueil" is unchanged (except for the addition of a large dead fly), even the ramshackle friterie on the Ijzerplein where I used to buy fries is still exactly as I remember it.

There are changes. If a passing time-traveler had miraculously transported me from Brussels-when-I-lived-there to Brussels today, I might have wondered when the Gare Centrale had been transformed into the high tech palace of the Space People, why every second store had suddenly become a Leonidas chocolate outlet, and why my whole neighborhood was now a full-on prostitution stroll (it was always a red-light district, but in my street at least, most of the activity was off-street and hidden from view). And I might have wondered when the strangely pallid little trams that scuttled through the tunnels of the Pre-Metro had been replaced by gleaming silver monsters. Still, I could probably have walked around for a good half-hour before it dawned on me that anything had changed significantly.



Bruges, Belgium -- 13 December 2013 | Permalink
4 pictures

A small collection of photographs from Bruges (Brugge) in Belgium.