Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Northern journeys

In late January there was Oslo, courtesy of the fabulous Barokksolistene, a city completely new to me. Sentry on duty at the Akershus Fortress:

Then it was back to Reykjavík for the Dark Music Days Festival, the city almost unfamiliar in the freeze after our glorious summer initiation. Whooper swans on Tjörnin, which, believe it or not, is in the middle of town:

Flanking those were return visits to Glasgow and the Borders, where host Christopher took me with my two beloved oldest godchildren to Stobo Castle's Japanese Water Garden:

and to Edinburgh for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra's 40th birthday concert, where the situation of my hotel, the very characteristic Parliament House on Calton Hill, led me on a walk I'd never taken during my four student years in the city, past the Burns monument with stunning views over Arthur's Seat and Salisbury Crags:

Glasgow is always a delight to visit, however gloomy the weather, and my talks before BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra concerts have become regular fixtures. On the last two occasions I was able to take godson Alexander, and dine him beforehand at the Italian Caffè. This time dad was in attendance, and goddaughter Evi, who's now also at Glasgow University, came too. All three have permitted a rare personal shot of them at Stobo:

This is a big year: Alexander and Evi will be 21, their respective sisters Kitty and Maddie 18. We're planning a big Garrick supper midway between the four birthdays.

I think A and E enjoyed the concert. Personally I'd never programme Shostakovich's First Symphony in a second half, but predictably the great Donald Runnicles made much of it, and was a sleek partner to Lars Vogt in a memorably idiosyncratic Grieg Piano Concerto. The wonderful venue is 'City Halls' because there's another hall next door to the classical concert venue, but it can never be used simultaneously as there's no soundproofing. We snuck in to take a peek at the empty, freezing cold alternative venue during the interval:

Stobo and Chapelgill ought to be one of four 'northern walks' I need to chronicle following this general spiel if I ever get round to it. The second will be a tour of Oslo in the snow and the third a windy wander to the lighthouse on the Seltjarnarnes peninsula outside Reykjavík, but in the meantime it's worth underlining the similarities between the two newish buildings which were my headquarters on both weekends. Harpa of course I already knew and loved, having been present at the grand summer opening. Again, it's very different in the foreground of snowy cliffs around Reykjavík harbour in the winter

while Oslo Opera House must be white in all weathers.

Both are the only nordic edifices so far to receive the Mies van der Rohe Award of the European Union Prize for Contemporary Architecture - Oslo in 2009, Harpa in 2013 . Of course I knew all about Danish-Icelandic genius Olafur Eliasson's work on most details of Harpa, not least the three-dimensional windowpanes representing basalt columns,

but I only read later that he was responsible for The Other Wall in Oslo, four box volumes inspired by the space beneath glaciers where ice crystals form.

They look across the marble floor to the oak 'tree' surrounding the auditorium, reflected in mirrors above:

The other connection, this time between all four jaunts, is Rooms with Views, starting with the known quantity of Chapelgill in Broughton,where outside my window the brook was rattling away restfully. Normally I wouldn't put a high price on what I see from a hotel window, since you can usually be out in it, but given the cold in Oslo and Reykjavík, it was good to sit still and look. We were on the 28th floor of a dauntingly large and impersonal Radisson in Oslo, looking down on the Opera House and the harbour in unrelentingly grey, snowy weather

and especially held by the compass-point picture made by a roundabout so far down.

The Centerhotel Arnhovall in Reykjavik looks like a barracks or a Soviet headquarters from the outside but it's not only superbly placed for dashing across in knockdown winds to Harpa, it also has the best views in the city if you get a seaward facing room.

And though again grey was the predominant colour - or at least 20 shades - the light shifted by the hour as it always seems to in supernatural Iceland, so sun did touch the peaks of the mountain over the harbour.

Edinburgh, too, yielded a surprise. I've been up Calton Hill, of course, but never up Calton Hill The Street, the steep cobbled incline at the top of which sits the Parliament House Hotel. Nor had I ever been in Calton Cemetery, bisected by Waterloo Place so that a segment of it is in the hotel garden. The rest is a tourist attraction I'd never visited. More on that anon, but here in a somewhat fuzzy dawn are its obelisk and the castle-like building which, as the governor's house, is all that remains of Edinburgh's ill-starred prison.

A little later, the sun waiting to rise from behind Salisbury Crags (yes, that's a natural wonder, not a roof, on the left)

and in full sunlight,

beckoning a walk that lasted me the better part of the day after the SCO concert.  Here's just a taster in the view from the cemetery over to Parliament House Hotel (on the left) and Calton Hill.

For further steps that reminded me how Edinburgh is the most beautifully-situated city in the world, at least of all those I know, more in the series to follow.


Susan Scheid said...

I love that you’re even now finding new nooks and crannies of Edinburgh—proving your point about that city’s beautiful situation. The Eliasson works are stunning. They remind me, tangentially, of the Wales Millennium Center in Cardiff, which so thoughtfully used local materials . . . and words.

As for “rooms with views,” your post is particularly timely, as our own summer journey planning has begun and, in addition to London, we, too, are pointing north. The hope is Finland, at least the south, and a dip into Tallinn. Of course we’d love to see St. Petersburg, but that will have to wait for a better climate, so to speak. London is for certain, and we’re knocking wood on the rest. By the way, a small item I picked up at the Kremerata Baltica concert is winging its way to you, sent 2/4, so hopefully soon to arrive.

Willym said...

Oh David how I envy you these wonderful adventures but at least I get to share in them.

Looking forward to more about the cemetery - I loe cemeteries.....

David said...

Sue, that's wonderful news. So we, at least, can find a day to excurt to Derek's garden in Dungeness. Tallinn is looking like a possibility for us, too, perhaps to coincide with a choral festival, not sure yet when but must know your dates anon. Finland you'll love, of course - Ainola in the summer! And maybe Savonlinna... As for the present, I'm suspenseful but already thankful.

The Millennium Centre has its beauties - the letters outside especially - but the foyer spaces are a bit of a mess. Terrible news about cuts to Cardiff arts. Must find out more.

Willym - me too. I even lived in a cemetery gatehouse right the other (west) end of Edinburgh, in Dalry. A weird experience, to say the least. This one has a big monument to David Hume. To think I never saw it during my student years.

At least you know what real snow is like in Ottawa. We haven't seen it in the UK so far this year, so Oslo really was a winter wonderland for me.

David Damant said...

St Petersburg is sensational. It is a pity that Lenin moved the capital to Moscow, as Moscow will always be Holy Moscow, whereas St Petersburg is and looks like a great imperial capital. But the German army was not far away and anyway I suppose Lenin thought that there should be a complete break with the former regime. I understand that the logistics of reversing that decision are insurmountably difficult. A pity. Incidentally, always visit unless one is in danger.....do not cut off a country from civilising and logical influences, which one can see (for example) eventually got through to the Kremlin and led to the collapse of communism

David said...

Lovely, but a) we've got our hands full extolling Oslo, Reykjavik, Edinburgh and Glasgow and b) it is from St Petersburg that the worst persecutors of gay Russians are operating at the moment - especially the bloke (the same, I think, interviewed by S Fry and revealed as half-insane) who is persecuting the last helplne for gay teenagers. They in turn are criminalised under the new law purporting to protect minors simply for writing to it or phoning for help, can you imagine?

That's why I won't be visiting again, much as I love the city, for the foreseeable future, and probably why Sue and the Edu-mate won't either. And in fact from sundry reports I hear that gay foreigners/tourists certainly aren't immune from assault beyond the shop window of Sochi.

David Damant said...

Well we shall have to disagree on this point. I invoke Kant's Categorical Imperative - one should act on rules that one would want to be made general laws. And I do not believe that cutting off Russia from all contacts, visits, business links etc by everyone would be helpful.

David said...

I agree with your point in general. But when it comes to tourism, individuals ARE putting themselves at risk. One could be - and people are being - arrested simply if challenged on the issue of sexuality and mentioning it ('propaganda'). And I do know personally of a number of cases of mugging and beating up recently which may or may not have been related to the individuals' sexuality.

Would you have gone to Hitler's Germany after '33, unless you were a diplomat or a government official?

David Damant said...

I went to the USSR under communism ( terrible place, and the authorities made every effort to prevent contacts between visitors and the locals, to prevent the flow of "dangerous" ideas.) I went to South Africa under apartheid - this led to my being accused of supporting the white regime, an example of how argument can be corrupted. And I encouraged others to go in these cases and anyway to maintain business contacts ( an additional point is that economic growth dissolved many of the tougher apartheid rules ). I do not agree that the right thing to do in the case of evil regimes is to cut oneself off. One has, rather, to think of the effects of alternative actions. "No contact" is not necessarily the right action

In the case of Hitler I would have started on my general principle. But there was a unique factor - the only will that mattered was that of Adolf Hitler and "Me, you will never change" One could however have observed what was happening

I did mention danger as a reason for not visiting

David said...

And danger is the reason that sets Russia now apart from the Soviet Union then. Plus the fact that if you tried to enlighten Russian citizens as to why homosexuality is NOT to be confused with paedophilia, you could be detained for up to 14 days. And some of us wouldn't be able to keep our mouths shut.

Mind you, South Africa is probably more dangerous for less specific reasons now than it was under apartheid.

We travelled round Iran, admittedly before the Ahmadinejad regime. It was safe and many of the people we met were enchanting - the people always are - but impossible to tell who were agents provocateurs. Looking back, I think several must have been.

wanderer said...

These comments have been very thought provoking, thanks to the D's and i am sorry to be late again.

I understand DD's principles, and wonder without wanting to know, the circumstances of his visits to countries of oppressive regimes. I wouldn't go to Russia today, no Hungary for that matter for reasons of personal safety primarily but also I just don't care to be where I don't feel (reasonably) welcome.

I must say, the train from Helsinki to St P was, on reflection, one of (if not the) most interesting ever.

David, is the beautiful iceberg Oslo house still separated from the city by that freeway or have they managed to bury / disguise it and integrate the waterfront and the city ?

David said...

You mean the Opera House? Around it is still a building site, and behind it they've built a hideous block of high rise offices known collectively as the Barcode. So it's all in all a mess as often happens with too much new money to splash around.

At least there are plans to move the Munch Museum there, but the harbourside developments are not as happy as the deliriously beautiful house itself.

As for the Helsinki-St P train journey, I found it fascinating because while the basic landscape - ie pine trees and water - didn't change, its handling did, with ecological blight obvious the minute one crossed the border.

David Damant said...

As regards Wanderer's points, I agree that one must be careful on safety. But I have been to places said to be dangerous, some of which were dangerous, and obviously one must be sensible on the visit. I did not go up to Harlem in New York in the past, and in many cities I did not wander around at night . If one avoided all countries with a violence problem one would seriously restrict one's world view. I was attacked in the street ( by gypsy boys; I fought back ! ) in Moscow after communism, but I did not stop visiting.

On being welcome, that also is a point which could rule out many countries. Or, who does the non-welcoming? I was with a friend in Soweto under Apartheid and we were really welcomed by the black residents. I drove with a friend around East Germany under communism - a very nasty regime, shooting those trying to escape - and found the people in the countryside and the towns glad to see us ( on one occasion a lady spoke to the police on our behalf to get round a foolish rule )Does one blacken the people because of the regime under which they are suffering? And - to refer again to Kant's rule - if we take a "don't visit" position on either of those two grounds do we recommend everyone in the world to take the same view? Such a wide boycotting would be largely negative.
If wanderer is speculating that I stayed usually in good hotels he is 80% right,out of 100 or more trips.... but I also stayed with families (for example in sad Prague after the Russian/ Warsaw Pact invasion of 1968 - should I have boycotted Prague ?) and anyway from hotels I went out to see what I could see.

David said...

I agree that where the regimes can be unpleasant, the people are often welcoming (often more so because of that fact). We found this very much the case in Iran and Syria.

The problem with Russia now is that, if the figures are to be believed, Putin is pandering to the electorate, and your average man and woman in the street will - again, I'm only going on others' evidence - be liable to confuse homosexuality with paedophilia.

On violence - we backed out of going to Uzbekistan partly because it was at a time when you could only stay in expensive nationalised hotels - you wouldn't get the visa otherwise - but above all because we heard nightmarish stories of police corruption and intimidation from others who'd been there. I think I'd draw the line in pure tourism if the hassles were going to prove overwhelming. To be honest we found them so in Mali - not criminal, but just see-a-tourist-and-go-for it behaviour. And this from someone who could easily tolerate and turn into a joke the tuggers (=tourist muggers) in Egypt and Morocco.

But now we've had ten comments off piste. I suppose the room for observation on what I'd actually written about is now virtually blocked off, but if anyone DOES want to take up the gauntlet for Reykjavik, Oslo or the great Scots cities, please do so.