Friday, February 26, 2010

A Hot Tip for a Cold Winter – Head North for a Warm Welcome

Here’s a quiz. How can you visit some of the best royal palaces in Europe with no crowds? What about some of the best art collections? Or famous restaurants? Answer – head for Denmark in February.
It’s a counter-intuitive strategy and not one that is endorsed by many travel writers. The perceived wisdom is that Denmark in February is cold, gray and many of the sights are closed.
But we were tired of fighting our fellow Brits at Heathrow and on the slopes and beaches, as we have every year, and headed instead to the place on no one's list - Denmark. Sure it was cold and some of the sights we really wanted to see, such as the Open Air Museum and Karen Blixen’s house, were closed, but even more were open. Some of the finest sites, such as the fairy-tale Frederiksborg Castle, seemed virtually deserted.
And besides, regardless of the time of year, the Danes are excellent hosts. Great linguists, friendly and helpful, I can’t think of a country where we have received a warmer welcome, despite the sub-zero temperatures. And then there is the scale. Like Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Denmark is not too large and not too small. During our five-day visit, we were able to explore Copenhagen and the countryside, feeling that we had seen many of the major sites while leaving plenty more for another visit. Here are the highlights:
Day 1 – Back to Nature
After arriving at modern, efficient Copenhagen Airport, we headed for Brede, a small community north of Copenhagen containing an 86 acre Open-Air Museum with farmhouses and dwellings from all over Denmark and Brede Works, a preserved mill and factory. The museum and factory are closed for the winter but we were staying with a friend who lives in one of the historic factory workers cottages, – a magical place straight out of the time of Hans Christian Andersen. We hiked in the snow all around the beautiful woodland retreat and we highly recommend taking the 30 minute train to Brede, considered one of the loveliest train rides in Denmark – when the museum is open which is from April to September.
In the late afternoon we took a short drive to Allerod and Ninas Natur Café – also closed for the winter – but as we are friends of Nina and her husband, Hans, we had a sneak preview of the delicious food, lovely countryside and warm welcome that await visitors from May through September.
Day 2 – Castles, Hamlet and Hockney
We began the day at Frederiksborg Castle in Hillerod (22 miles NW of Copenhagen) which is both a former royal palace and the home of Denmark’s Museum of National History. This is an exquisite Renaissance castle, full of romance, and the national history collection is vast and fascinating. As palaces go, Frederiksborg is five star, with the added benefit of being open every day of the year.
Lunch across the street from the castle at the Slotskroen (a tavern since 1795) included lots of herring, open faced Danish sandwiches and plenty of beer and acquavit which set us up well for the afternoon.
After lunch, we headed for Helsingor and the Kronborg Castle, made famous by Shakespeare in Hamlet under the name of Elsinore Castle. Positioned dramatically overlooking the Oresund (the straits between Denmark and Sweden), this fortress is as mighty and foreboding as Frederiksborg is beautiful.
Our last stop was at Louisiana – not the American state – rather, a fabulously sited modern art museum overlooking Oresund with unusual architecture, a sculpture park and a blockbuster collection: Picasso, Giacometti, Pollock, Calder and so much more. I wouldn’t call the place empty but it certainly wasn’t crowded and for fans of modern art, I would call it unmissable.
Day 3 – A Copenhagen Culture Marathon
Such is the compact scale and vast cultural richness of Copenhagen that we were able to visit three remarkable museums and enjoy an excellent lunch and still make it back to Brede for a fine dinner.
While we were doing all of that, our 12 year old daughter was off visiting the Experimentarium, a museum within the old Tuborg brewery bottling hall designed to make science accessible to the masses. As Eloise has promised to write a post about her experience, I will say no more about it now.
Anyway, following the No Crowds rule of bypassing major museums in favour of smaller more interesting ones, we began our day at the Hirschsprung Sammlung. Housed in a romantic neoclassical pavilion in a lovely park, this fine collection of 19th century Danish art was donated to the state by the German-Jewish tobacco magnate Heinrich Hirschsprung whose giant portrait greets you as you come in the door. As I’m partial to German-Jewish tobacco magnates, I felt we were off to a great start. The collection of paintings from Denmark’s Golden Age (1800-1850) are particularly inspiring.
Next up was the David Collection. Housed in an early 19th building that was once occupied by the Museum’s founder, Christian Ludvig David, the museum is really three collections: 18th century art displayed in period interiors; Danish early modern art and a world-class collection of Islamic Art. Similar to the Wallace Collection in London and the Jacquemart Andre, this museum provides the opportunity to see a highly individualistic collection in the collector's home.
Lunch took place at the Slotskaelderen (near the Christiansborg), famous for its open faced sandwiches, the smorrebrod. Open since 1797 and run by the same family since 1910, this place is old fashioned, authentic and big fun. The smorrebrod, as you would expect, were delicious.
After lunch, we headed across the street to Thorvaldsens Museum that houses the work, possessions and last resting place of Denmark’s most famous sculptor, Bertel Thorvaldsen (1770- 1844).
Dinner was back in Brede at the now rather elegant Brede Spieshus, which was once the cafeteria for the factory workers. The restaurant sits picturesquely overlooking a small lake and the food is good.
Day 4 – Christiania
Social experiment in self-government? Drug haven for drop-outs? The longest running anarchist commune in Europe? We had heard so much about the Free City of Christiania, an 86 acre area of Copenhagen with roughly 1,000 residents who have been operating autonomously since 1971, that we just had to see it. The problem was, we saw it in the middle of a blizzard which made walking around the community an abbreviated affair.
Highlights of our time in Christiania included husband and daughter shooting pool in a café where the mild scent of pot wafted through the air. We visited the Loppe building with its impressive grafitti, famous music venue and much admired restaurant, the Spiselopen. Being capitalists, we also bought a distinctive Christiania sweatshirt in bright red with yellow dots to support the anarchist cause which I now wear all over London in the hope of meeting Danes. In all, it was a fun and interesting place. They have their own currency and are doing their own thing and the fact that the government hasn’t shut them down shows that their controversial social experiment still claims sufficient support from the people. We say - Right on, Christiania.
Day 5 – the Miraculous Departure
As it had snowed all the previous day and most of the night, I figured we would never get out of Denmark. With my UK hat on, I expected road chaos and airport delays. Instead, we woke to find the roads plowed and clear and our airline running to schedule. What a great country!
As our plane took off over snow-covered Denmark, I thought, As soon as we can, we’ll be back.
Hotel Info
The friends that we stayed with highly recommend the Guldsmeden Hotel group who have several properties in Copenhagen at varying price points. All Guldsmeden properties are distinctive, sustainable and owner operated.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Mastering Truth and Illusion in London's National Gallery

So what’s the best 55 British pounds I never spent on travel?

A small group tour of the National Gallery in London with Context Travel. I think it is important to say right up front that I was invited by Context to join this tour as part of a relationship building exercise. It is also important to say that of all the museum tours I have ever taken (and trust me, I’ve taken plenty) this tour was the best.

I wasn’t expecting to be bedazzled by another trip to the National Gallery. After all, I’ve been there countless times ( 5 times a year X the last 15 years = at least 75 visits) but that was the tour on offer and I was keen to see if Context could deliver on their big brand promise of offering "scholar-led experiences for the intellectually curious traveler". I should also say that I don't much like to be led. Maybe it's just because I am a child of the 60s but when I travel, I really like to do my own thing.

Despite the caveats, I was bedazzled. For three solid hours, my small group of four (including two intrepid gentlemen who had just flown in from Dallas for the weekend) experienced something special – a history of art Master Class for art loving amateurs. As you can imagine, that's not an easy thing to deliver. Our Context docent, Scott Nethersole, wove an incredible narrative out of one of the world’s greatest art collections that included scholarship, anecdotes, humour and a love of subject so infectious that it made me want to go back to University and study art.

Be forewarned, if what you want is a quick introduction and some highlights then I don't think Context is for you. These are tours and itineraries for travelers who want to dig deep into a topic and it would be a waste of your time and the docent’s talent to sign up with Context if that’s not what you are about.

Context offers an impressive range of experiences in many major cities. They have small groups you can join, as I did, which keeps cost down or they can arrange for private groups and custom itineraries including private tours of the Vatican and special programs for families with children. They have a good website and you can check it all out here.

As for me, I plan to use Context again, even when I’m paying my own way. I was expecting a "tour' of the National Gallery. Instead I attended an amazing three hour Master Class in the history of western art. I can't think of a better way to experience a great museum.

Photo of the Toilet of Venue ("Rokeby Venus") by Velazques - one of the many paintings we saw with a fabulous story attached.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Jane in the Rain - It Mattered Not

"So where are you off to", my husband asked politely as I raced around the house throwing things into a backpack.

“I’m off to Box Hill with my Austen class. See you tonight.”

“Oh, is it an interesting house?”

“No, silly, it’s a hill – right outside of London. Great views. You know, it’s where they had that famous picnic in Emma.

Wait, your class is going to a hill? But it’s pouring.

Who cares? They don’t even know if Jane Austen ever saw Box Hill. If she can imagine it, well, so can I.

And imagine we did as we trudged through the rain, the fog and the mud. Thanks to our intrepid teacher, Alice Leader (you can read about Alice here and buy her books here ) we ‘saw’ Box Hill through the eyes of Jane Austen’s characters, even though, in actual fact, we saw next to nothing. We talked about how the servants and carriages would have made it up the hill, how the area would have been made ready for the fashionable business of dining “au plein air” and how Emma would have had her famous denouement with Mr Knightley. As our guide Mark so nicely put it, “The people change, but the place stays the same”.

While we Austenites were busy with our imaginings, we were passed by all kinds of walkers and mountain bikers, also undeterred by weather. Box Hill, is a country park of more than 800 acres, that is part of the National Trust which oversees more than 300 historic homes and gardens. It has much to offer anyone who loves nature and a fitting tribute to this other worldly place so close to London can be found in the opening line of Keats’ poem Endymion, which he finished while staying at the Burford Bridge Hotel at the foot of Box Hill:

A thing of beauty is a joy forever.