Archive for August 2012

Qaqordoq – Say What?

August 27, 2012

We finally made landfall in Greenland, and on my birthday, to make it all the more amazing. Plus, I get to say that I spent my birthday in a place that even I can’t pronounce correctly (listen here for the real sound of the Greenlandic language, much less guttural than all those q’s make you think).

Although Qaqordoq is the largest town in southern Greenland, with a population of about 3,000, it’s kept its small town ways. We were greeted , as we neared town, by these fisherman with fish to sell, nevermind that we were five stories up from their boat and many thousands of miles from our kitchens.

A minke whale also followed us into the harbor, but was playing pretty coy.

There’s no pier, so we had to anchor out and tender in, always an ordeal,

although we cheered up when we saw their very well-stocked souvenir shop, which included things like green seal-fur mukluks and the super-soft and beautiful but hideously expensive scarves woven from musk ox hair. And when I say expensive, I mean that I saw a beautiful one and took it over to Shel and said that it would make a great birthday present at $50. He hastily pointed out that I’d made a fundamental currency translation error, and the scarf was actually $500.

The look of the town reflects the fact that Greenland, like Iceland and the Faroes, has no native trees, so all the houses are built of corrugated sheet metal imported mainly from Denmark.

The street names are Danish too. Here’s Vatican street.

Downtown Qaqordoq boasts what we were told is Greenland’s only fountain.

We went into the one small supermarket, looking for whale blubber, seal steaks, and the like. Instead we found Carte d’Or ice cream, the brand we buy in France, as well as Ben and Jerry’s

and Starbucks, labeled in English.

We heard singing from the church right next to the supermarket and stuck our heads in, to find a very sparsely-attended mass in progress. Later we learned that at least some of the attendees were cruise passengers from our ship.

There were lots of pretty examples of Native art scattered around the town,

and we did see these two young women in bright Native dress, although it wasn’t clear to me whether that was in honor of our visit, or a daily occurrence.

Even the town’s huge oil tanks were painted with a Native motif.

We only had a few hours in town, and as we sailed away from Greenland we were treated to more icebergs, making this definitely one or my most unusual birthdays ever!

Icebergs in Paradise

August 24, 2012

One of the remotest places, and possibly the most beautiful place on Earth: Prince Christian Sound. I’ll scarcely say a word, I’ll just let you discover it as we did. Except: 60% of these shots were taken by Shel, 40% by me (but who’s counting?). It was a once in a lifetime experience for both of us. If you ever get a chance to go there: do!

See what I mean?

Return To Iceland

August 21, 2012

Our first pass at Iceland took us to Reykjavik, then bad weather forced us to miss our planned visit to Djupivogur. This time, on our return from the Faroe Islands, we were able to stop at Seydisfjördur and Akureyri, in the east and north.

The east of Iceland looks dramatically different. We didn’t spend any time in Seydisfjördur itself, but headed directly towards the Borgafjördur Estuary.

There we stopped at the tiny town of Bakkagerdi

which is in a stunning setting, although the town itself doesn’t have a lot to offer but scenery. We had to drive for hours to get there, and arrived rather bus-worn and grumpy.

Shel and I resorted to taking pictures of each other, something we don’t often do,

and in fact he took many of the beautifully atmospheric shots I’m going to show you.

Like the one of this cool house, the only one of its kind that we saw in Iceland, with not only a green roof but green sides as well. I wanted to move right in.

This was a more typical look, beautiful in quite a different way.

At nearby Hafnarholmi we saw puffins galore, and since this was what we had come for, we quit grumbling about the several hour trip through deserted countryside and fell in love with the little birds, as so many have before us. There’s just something about a puffin. They’re much smaller than I’d imagined, but twice as cute.

Next we sailed around to the north of Iceland, to pretty Akureyri, which is a real town. Here again we didn’t spend much time in town, but instead headed out to visit farms in the gorgeous surrounding countryside.

This was the most beautiful part of Iceland that we saw, gentle and verdant.

First we visited an amazing dairy farm, where the 100 Icelandic cows are cared for entirely by robots.  Well, one person oversees it all, but all the work is robotic.

The cows are milked four times a day, although they often ask to be milked more frequently. Every cow has a chip with all her vital information, and the robot milker will not milk her more frequently than at six hour intervals, no matter how many times she presents herself for milking. The chip also contains specifications like the size and location of each cow’s teats, her milk production, and so on. Before milking the robot cleans the teats, and the cows munch placidly all the while. There’s even a robot to clean the floors, a sort of Poop Roomba, and as you can see the cow’s feet are quite clean.

Lest you think that cows would not enjoy such a life, I have to admit that these were the calmest and most contented-seeming cows I have ever seen, despite their robo-care and the fact that they live entirely indoors.

Next we visited a little farm with an attached ice cream shop, where I got to try freshly-made skyr, and the others had a bowl of exotic ice creams made from the farmer’s milk. Flavors like sorrel, and beer, for example, that seemed very cutting edge for a little creamery out in the country, and which were pronounced to be excellent.

We also visited a very old farmstead, now being restored as a little museum to show how farmers lived in the past,

and there we were offered a delicious snack of home-smoked lamb, home made paté with rhubarb jam and dark bread, and the exquisitely creamy Icelandic blue cheese.

We were more or less ready to move right in and stay a while, but as always happens when cruising, you only get a day to see things, no matter how wonderful. I’m ready to go back to Iceland, though. It’s a fascinating country, compellingly different from anywhere else I’ve been.

Back in Akureyri, while I did a little shopping before we sailed, Shel caught these two young musicians performing on the street, proving that some things are universal, and that girls will be girls, no matter where they live.

Journey, Death, Journey

August 19, 2012

After leaving the Faroe Islands we continued on our fantasy voyage, following the route of the Vikings to Prince Christian Sound, to Greenland, Iceland again, back to Newfoundland, and I’ll tell you all about that soon. But first, reality intervenes. One thing about cruising, so obvious that you scarcely think about it, is that you are on a ship, out at sea, and sometimes you can’t get off, no matter how you try.

During that voyage we began to hear that Shel’s Mom was ill, then very ill, then deathly ill, all in the space of two weeks. When we got the news that made us really want to rush to Atlanta we were off the coast of Newfoundland with no way off the boat except a quick dive into freezing water. Ship to shore radio was barely functional. email was excruciatingly slow. Those 20 knots per hour, a nice clip for a contented cruiser, dragged on and on for us, and Shel’s Mom left the planet before we could go ashore.

It’s what she wanted, to go quickly and mostly without pain. She also didn’t want us to see her “like that.”  Always coiffed and properly dressed, with bright red lips and shiny fingernails, red-haired in her youth like so many of the Vikings, right up until her death earlier this week at the age of 87 she was a fiercely Southern lady. And she was also the last of our parents to walk this earth, so that we’re now the oldest generation in our family, a sobering thought.

So welcome to Valhalla, Margaret. I know you believed in Heaven and drank only the occasional glass of Chardonnay, with an ice cube, but I’d rather think of you among the Valkyries, chalice raised, wolf guarding the door, surrounded by the brave souls who crossed that dark sea before you, and who died as sure of themselves as you always were. There was only ever one like you, and now there are none.

Oh Is For Faroes

August 9, 2012

If you’re longing for serenity, stillness, and sweet solitude, the Faroe Islands might be for you.

A haven for hermits,

a place made for painters and photographers.

A place where people depend on fishing

to feed their families, as well as growing potatoes,

and growing and drying grasses to feed their animals: sheep, horses, and some cows.

A place where virtually everything else, including building materials, is imported from Denmark. There’s not even a Faroese cheese. A country that’s part of the Kingdom of Denmark, with an independence movement that’s said to include about half the population, but which lacks visible means of support in the modern world. A country that you can’t understand in a day, which is all we had there.

A gentle, empty land where your nearest neighbors are probably sheep,

or possibly puffins. We were dying to see puffins, and therefore thrilled beyond words to see these guy, even though they weren’t nearly close enough to suit us. We didn’t see pufflings, as baby puffins are called, but I think puffling is my new favorite word.

And if I ever decide to take a step out of the world, to live far from all I know, to dream, perchance to write, the Faroe Islands might be my new favorite place.

Zombies And Fairies

August 8, 2012

So we hopped off the Maasdam in Dublin and hopped on a double decker bus. The bus went nowhere, and I had plenty of time to amuse myself with the scenery. Oh wait, I was evidently looking out the wrong side of the bus.

What was really happening, why the bus wasn’t moving, why all of downtown Dublin was ground to a standstill, was the Zombie Parade. Hundreds, if not thousands, of would-be zombies flooded the streets.

Why would you want to be a zombie in the land of leprechauns and fairies? No clue.

When we finally got rolling I was treated to a Gratuitous Name Sighting. I’m always alert to stray instances of my name, and I thought this one was especially cute.

Dublin is a lovely city, and one of the loveliest places we saw was St. Patrick’s Cathedral,

whose organ has a stop called bombard.

Jonathan Swift was dean of this cathedral for 30 years

and was buried here.

Something I really enjoyed about Dublin is that most signs are written in both Gaelic and English, two languages that, as you can see, do not resemble each other at all.

I also appreciated the effort they put into saving the lives of hapless tourists. Since they drive on the “other” side of the road, stepping off a curb is one of the most hazardous things you can do here.

We weren’t able to go into Christchurch, but it was quite imposing from the outside.

We did, however, go into Dublin’s oldest pub for a nice evening of dinner accompanied by Irish music and folklore. Fairies were very much a part of the evening, and even though I’m not superstitious, I wouldn’t go out of my way to cross some of the magical beings we heard about during dinner.

We also didn’t go into Trinity College, except for the courtyard, where hundreds of poeple waited in line to see the famous Book of Kells, even though it was pouring rain.

Instead we browsed shop windows, especially those with interesting names,

checked out this monument to Molly Malone (apparently also known as “the tart with the cart,”

and admired a set of mysterious paving stone inserts, all with a dagger theme.

I’ve been trying to post this for two days, so I could get on to the Faeroe Islands, and east Iceland, where we are now. Tonight we’ll cross the Arctic Circle, and the ship’s satellite internet connection is so fickle, so abominable, that I’ll just post this as is and catch up as catch can. Sorry!

Pilgrim’s Progress

August 6, 2012

From Amsterdam we sailed to Southampton, where we planned to spend the day with our friends-from-France Miranda and Mike. Although they’re English, they didn’t know Southampton at all, and now we know why – there’s not a lot to know.

A bit of it looks like this, but a lot more of it

looks like this. The city did get bombed quite a bit during WWII, so perhaps that’s why it’s not pretty. There’s a very tiny “old” section, but it’s not too old, and not too big.

They do have Internet-equipped phone booths, and KFCs, but we were really glad that we had our old friends to meet and catch up with, as they singlehandedly

saved the day from “least favored cruise port” status.

Then it was on to Plymouth, where a great portion of the old town and its harbor are devoted to the fact that the Mayflower sailed out of there nearly 400 years ago. Like all Americans, I suppose, we felt half-obligated, half-inspired to make our own little pilgrimage to the Pilgrims’ memorial.

Today, if you sail out of that same harbor, the view is quite different from the one they saw.

Looking back at Plymouth for a last glimpse of all that was familiar, before setting off into the unknown, no Pilgrim could have imagined that the view would come to this.

Here’s a telling section of a lovely frieze that highlights their travails. Our own worst travail was remaining lunchless (if you’re ever in Plymouth avoid the Crown and Anchor like the plague) and really, in comparison to what our country’s distant ancestors went through, we shouldn’t have complained. Which is not to say that we didn’t complain anyway.

However! What’s the best thing to do on an empty stomach? If you guessed “drink gin” give yourself a star. The Plymouth gin distillery Connaisseur’s Tour led us through the history and manufacture of their ancient and unique gin, including lots of sniffing and tasting, and an absolute embargo on picture-taking, save this one shot. Sadly, in a blind tasting of five gins (Plymouth, Hendricks, Beefeater, Gordons, and Bombay Sapphire) no one in our group of 10 preferred the Plymouth. My theory is that the American palate is tuned to a spicier, more aromatic formula than the smooth, almost bland Plymouth style, but maybe it was just another way for North Americans to rebel against jolly old England. And speaking of rebellion, on to Dublin.

Old Dutch Masters

August 5, 2012

We were fortunate enough to have a peek into Holland’s past, and I want to share it with you. Although we sailed into Amsterdam, we drove up to Enkhuizen (stopping for an excellent lunch at De Tuynkamer in Hoorn) to the Zuiderzee Museum. It’s a museum that you reach by boat, and sailing in we saw lots of cool watercraft.

Once at the museum, which shows no paintings, no sculptures, I was struck nearly speechless. This is another of those preservation museums, where houses and buildings that show life as it was have been assembled, so that you can immerse yourself in the past.

What we saw there convinced me that the Dutch who lived during the mid-19th century had mastered the art of gorgeous living. Typical activities like drying and smoking fish

are probably just as beautiful today as they ever were. But the recreated village, as a whole, was a tone poem of color and texture that made us want to move there now, to live there then. I’ll show, not tell. Such beauty needs no commentary.

See what I mean? I’d show you far more, if at-sea satellite Internet weren’t so slow, and so costly. For now it’s time to close that little Dutch window, and look forward to England. Rough seas, heavy swells, that’s what our Captain announced. Dramamine, said I.

Norwegian Nutshell

August 2, 2012

We definitely adored Norway. It’s pure and pristine and wild and wacky, all in one. It was never really on my radar before we visited four Norwegian port towns, but now it decidedly is, and I’d happily spend more time there. Here’s a little combo plate of Norwegian delights, for your delectation, in no particular order.

On the food front, which I’ve been neglecting lately, Norway is all about the fish. Even the famed Spanish bacalao is made from Norwegian cod.

The fish market in Bergen was bursting with gorgeous fish, both fresh

and dried.

They’ll even cook for you right on the spot, although we felt like sitting down for an indoor lunch.

This restaurant in Bergen looked alluringly trendy, but instead we opted for

the reassuringly homey Restaurant Dampen, where I fell in love with the music of Siri Nilsen,

and had one of the hugest and most delicious bowls of mussels of my life.

At the opposite end of the food pyramid, in a grocery store in Aalesund, I walked into a ballroom-sized refrigerator case, which held all of the store’s perishables, including these tubes of cheese, in flavors like bacon and pepper, tomato, jalapeno, and taco.

But taco-flavored tube cheese wasn’t Aalesund’s biggest surprise. That honor went to

this not-so-giant egg, in which in 1904 4 men spent 5 months, bobbing and being battered, from Norway to Boston, just to prove that lifeboats were a worthy concept.

Think about it: 4 men, 5 months, crossing the Atlantic, in this.

The same museum reminded me of the not-so-distant day when you had to be an artist to make photographs, none of the point, shoot, and post foo that we resort to today.

A pretty view over Aalesund,

and one over Bergen from the top of Mt. Ulriken. Much is made of Bergen’s funicular, but we accidentally took the cable car instead, and were rewarded with these splendid views,

in addition to being greeted at the top by these friendly sheep,

a little parking place to leave your dog,

and a hardy post-Viking guy changing out of his long-sleeved shirt, because after all it was Norwegian summer, even if it was windy and cool.

Back at sea level we admired the Norwegian architecture

and pondered the sad fact that no matter how lovely Norway is, no matter how useful Shel’s bit of Danish and my few words of Swedish are,

we’ll never be able to afford to live there. It’s a place to return to, though, and I hope we will.

One Fjord For All

August 1, 2012

If you’re only going to see one fjord, let it be Geiranger. It’s utterly awe-inspiring, even if we did have to get up at 6:30 in the morning to worship its full majesty.

How in the world did they build this little farm, perched hundreds of feet up on the sheer rock face above the fjord, next to the Seven Sisters falls? Not to mention how in the world was it possible to live there, back in the day, no power, no phone, no Internet, no road, no car, no nada except the pure awesomeness of total isolation in a splendid place.

Coming into the tiny town of Geiranger, population 250, on a ship carrying 2000 people. We weren’t the only tourists in town, though, as there were campers and cars with license plates from all over northern Europe, and as far away as Italy and Estonia.

Specially for the tourists, I suppose, there were lots of weird foods in the Geiranger grocery store.

We weren’t having any, but we did buy some delicious elk sausage that accompanied our happy hours for a couple of days afterwards.

High above the fjord at the idyllic and 300 year old Herdal Mountain Farm,  we admire the sturdy Norwegian fjord horses, as well as the goats that make the milk for their caramelized gjetost, a sweet brown goat cheese often found in the US under the Ski Queen label. The animals spend their summers on the mountain,

and the winters 10 kilometers downhill in pretty little Norddal,

where the gravestones in the little churchyard have individually planted flower beds.

On the way back down the 11 hair-raising hairpin turns of the mountain road, we stop to admire the wakes of the boat traffic in the fjord down below. I’m not sure that the Vikings have anything on our bus driver, for sheer bravery. Those hairpin turns are enough to freeze your blood, even in summer, and the road is open all year. But not for us, as we’re headed south, staying in Norway for another couple of days before sliding down towards Amsterdam.