Travels of Laura

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Home after 31 weeks, 2 days

Home after 31 weeks, 2 days
Copenhagen Region, Denmark

Copenhagen Region, Denmark

Back to Copenhagen after the dive trip, to a nice, small guest house near the airport. I spent the day repacking and relaxing. My flights were Copenhagen to Frankfurt to Vancouver to Victoria. I was happy not to be charged for my extra, heavy bag on Lufthansa!

Friend Bob picked me up at Victoria airport, bringing my seven months’ worth of mail, including 10 packages I’d mailed to myself. Now I’m listening to the CDs I bought and reminiscing about the places I visited.

Since returning home I’ve been looking at Victoria with tourist eyes and thinking what a nice place it is – I mean, how cute are those harbour ferries? 🙂

BBC News channel became so familiar to me that I’ve been tuning in to it each evening, although it’s the Canadian edition. I’m hoping to see coverage of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee June 2-5.

I’ve had an amazing and educational time. Travel agrees with me.

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Wreck diving in the Baltic Sea

Wreck diving in the Baltic Sea
Sandhamn, Sweden

Sandhamn, Sweden

May 16-20: We picked up the sixth diver in our group in Malmö, Sweden, and carried on to Torhamn, arriving at the dock at Karlskrona Kommun about 10:30 pm. The weather was very cool and windy. We had a boat briefing, then settled into our bunks. Thank goodness Morten arranged for me to have my own cabin! The other divers are bunking in one large cabin.

The M24 or Stora M (Big M) is a former minesweeper, now diveboat, solidly built and well maintained by a husband-and-wife team. One other crew member arrived the second day, and three more divers came for the last two days of diving. Our group was aboard for four days. The diving area was the south end of the island of Öland, at the southeast corner of Sweden. We returned to the dock each night.

It didn’t rain at all, but the first couple of days were very windy. We did one dive in the morning on the first day, but the captain deemed it too windy to dive in the afternoon. Wind means the boat is tossing around too much in the waves, preventing divers from climbing out of the water after their dives, not to mention making it harder to suit up.

The focus of our excursion was shipwrecks from World War I, especially those sunk on October 11, 1915, by the British submarine E-19, under the command of Lt-Cdr Francis Cromie. His task was to disrupt the shipment of iron ore from neutral Sweden to Germany, and in a single day, he sank five ships with no loss of life and without the use of torpedoes. He simply requested the ships’ crews to board their life boats, then used explosives or just opened the bottom valves to sink the ships. One had run aground, trying to flee, and after being looted was sent to the bottom. Rediscovered by divers in 1982-84 and dubbed, a bit dramatically, the “Submarine Massacre,” the wrecks are very well preserved, due to the darkness, cold, low oxygen levels and lack of woodworm.

The water at this time of year was 4 to 5 degrees Celsius. I was glad to have a good drysuit and dry-gloves. I was surprised to learn that the Baltic Sea is not very salty – so I didn’t need quite as much weight on my belt.

Anyway, I must confess to doing only two dives. I had a cold (yes, another one, but this one lodged in my throat, and I was croaking), and I injured my knee. In trying to grab and climb a ladder that was pitching and rolling in the waves, weighed down by a steel tank and weights, I heard a crack – not of bones but maybe ligaments? It’s not so bad that I’ve gone to the doctor yet, and I was able to clamber up the ladder, but it didn’t feel good. I was happier not diving but just being out on the water – I like boats – in the Baltic Sea, with nice people.

The underwater photographs were kindly shared by Marko and Morten.

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Back to my starting point

Back to my starting point
Copenhagen, Denmark

Copenhagen, Denmark

May 9-16: I’m glad to be back in Copenhagen for a week. I’ve had time to visit some museums, walk through some parks, check out some of the raw-vegan and vegetarian restaurants and arrange the rental of a few pieces of dive gear that I didn’t bring with me.

The Museum of Danish Resistance is interesting and well done, all about the activities during the 1940-45 Nazi occupation.

The Museum of Copenhagen tells the story of the city and had a special exhibition about garbage and recycling.

The fabulous National Museum of Denmark, which I’ve visited before, had a special exhibition about Europe.

The Glyptotek museum and gallery holds some
wonderful sculptures, and I caught a free concert by an excellent chamber choir in the Central Hall.

There are castles, parks, walks along canals – plenty to keep a visitor happy. The cycling culture here is to be admired and emulated.

I took the Metro (light rail) to Morten’s house and re-packed my dive gear bag and a smaller bag, leaving one bag there while we went on the dive trip. Three other divers joined us, we squeezed into two cars and departed for the bridge to Sweden – which I had photographed from the airplane when approaching Copenhagen last week.

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Busy Brussels

Busy Brussels
Brussels, Belgium

Brussels, Belgium

May 5-9: Took the train back to Brussels, and what a difference from Brugge! It’s a big, bustling, multicultural city that takes some getting used to. Everyone has their head buried in a map. I’m good with maps, and I have to say that Brussels street maps are the most challenging I’ve seen. The streets go every which way, and what makes things so crowded and cumbersome on maps is that each street has two names, French and Dutch, which often aren’t at all similar.
I was a bit shocked to see the condition of the big church right beside my hotel – it’s all blackened and looks horrible, complete with a set of recycling bins on the sidewalk beside it. There is evidence of big-city social issues as well. But there is plenty to do and see – a brochure listed 91 museums! And of course there are plenty of cultural activities.

I happened across a city fair with booths from many organizations, such as police, fire department, street cleaners, museums association, European Parliament, etc. Too bad the weather that day was less than ideal: cool and windy.

The Museum of Musical Instruments is housed in an attractive art nouveau building called Old England, which was a luxurious department store established in the late 1800s. The museum holds more than 7,000 instruments from all over the world and includes listening points to hear the instruments being played, an exhibit showing how pianos are constructed and local folk instruments.

I attended a Sunday afternoon concert at the Bozar, formerly named Palais des Beaux-Arts. It turned out to be student musicians collaborating with members of the Belgian National Orchestra. All the announcing was in Dutch. Some familiar music though.

Earlier I’d read a small book about famous Belgians – there are many significant historical figures, artists, cartoonists, actors, scientists, etc. Here are a few: Adolphe Sax, “father” of the saxophone; actor Jean-Claude van Damme; Agatha Christie character Hercule Poirot; singer Jacques Brel; architect Victor Horta (who influenced Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Frank Lloyd Wright, among others); Pierre “Peyo” Culliford, who created the Smurfs; John Joseph Merlin, who invented roller skates in 1760; Charlemagne; and author Georges Simenon.

The topic of the day is: will Belgium ever split? (Between French-speaking south and Flemish-speaking north.) Let’s hope not.

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Picturesque Brugge and sobering Flanders

Picturesque Brugge and sobering Flanders
Brugge, Belgium

Brugge, Belgium

April 30-May 5: It’s amazing: you can cross the English Channel underwater in just a half-hour. The Eurostar train departed Ashford International station at about 7:30 a.m., and after short stops in Calais and Lille, France, arrived in Brussels, Belgium, an hour-and-a-half later. Way better than flying!

I hopped on an inter-city train and arrived before noon in Brugge, more commonly known as Bruges. I learned that Bruges is the city’s name in French, and this is most certainly not the French-speaking part of Belgium; rather, it’s Flemish, so the locals prefer Brugge.

I arranged a small-bus tour of Flanders for the following day. The guide, Philippe, was full of knowledge about his native region and the impact World War I had (and continues to have) on it. We visited several battlefields, cemeteries, memorials, a dugout and trench system, pill-boxes or bunkers, a museum and the city of Ieper (Ypres in French). I learned so much about the war, much more than I did from high-school history classes – or maybe it’s because I’m more interested now and paid attention. The area of the province of Flanders that we toured was known in the war as the Ypres Salient, meaning the bulge in the Western Front line between the Allies and the Germans around the city of Ieper, which was of utmost importance to both sides. Germany wanted to capture it and move on to take the coastal towns in order to prevent more Allied forces from crossing the Channel to get to the front. Many significant battles were fought in this area, around Passchendaele, Damme, Ieper and Messines, and thousands and thousands of lives were lost on both sides.
The Brooding Soldier monument to Canadian soldiers sits near a junction that was called Vancouver Corner. Many bodies were never identified, but they are not forgotten. The Menin Gate Memorial is the largest of six memorials, with 55,000 names of missing soldiers. Still today, a Last Post ceremony is held here every evening. Belgians remain grateful to the Allied countries.

Farmers today are still – a hundred years later – finding ammunition and other war detritus in their fields, and even bodies are still occasionally uncovered. Demarcation stones still mark the spots of furthest German advance. They read: “Here the enemy was stopped.”

Ieper was virtually obliterated during the war, due to constant bombardment; after the war, the decision was made to rebuild in the same style, so the buildings appear a few hundred years older than they are. Funding for the reconstruction came from Germany.

At a dressing station where Canadian doctor John McCrae worked, there is a plaque about him. Philippe ended the tour by reading out John McCrae’s poem, In Flanders Fields. McCrae died in his early 40s, in 1918, of a lung infection. He had discarded his poem, but a friend found it. Poppies grow wild here, but they’re late blooming this year. Wish I could have seen them.

On a lighter note, I went on the other tour offered by Philippe and his Australian wife Sharon, called Triple Treat. Besides seeing more of the Flanders countryside and learning about its history and economy, we sampled three Belgian “delicacies” – waffles, chocolate and beer.

Spoken Flemish is a dialect of Dutch. Written and schoolroom Flemish is standard Dutch. Flemish is the language of Flanders in northern Belgium; French and Flemish are official languages of Brussels; and French is the language of Wallonia in southern Belgium. I didn’t know that!

All this, and I haven’t even mentioned yet the picturesque and popular city of Brugge itself. I loved it – the stepped façade architecture, canals, cobblestone streets, narrow alleys, neat and trim houses, a wonderful place for strolling. I also met two nice Flemish women at a vegetarian/organic restaurant. I wouldn’t have minded staying longer here, but my trip is winding down. On to Brussels.

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Change of plans – and return to Canterbury

Change of plans – and return to Canterbury
Canterbury, United Kingdom

Canterbury, United Kingdom

April 24-30: The planned and hoped-for dive trip to Greenland in late April was cancelled a few weeks ago due to too few divers committing to it by the deadline. Second year we’ve tried. What’s the problem? Don’t people like ice?! I paid extra to the airline to bring my dive gear over to Europe (kindly stored all these months by friend/dive trip organizer Morten) and didn’t want to go home having never got it wet, so Morten put together a four-day dive trip to Sweden. I wish it wasn’t so late in my trip – I’ll have just one day to dry my gear before flying home, and might have to stop diving a bit early to allow for “off-gassing” before flying – but it should be a great opportunity to get onto some World War I wrecks in the Baltic Sea. I now have three weeks to play with.
Rather than research a new place in England to visit, I decided to return to Canterbury, which I liked so much at the start of my trip. The self-catering place I had stayed at before did not have available all six days I wanted, so I moved after three days to the Canterbury Cathedral Lodge, within the precinct walls. It was special being able to stroll the grounds and the cathedral after the tourists had departed, and the view out my hotel window was of the cathedral’s spire.
I went on a guided tour of the cathedral as well, learning more about its history as the “cradle of English Christianity” and seeing where Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, was killed in 1170 more-or-less under the direction of King Henry II. Becket became a martyr and a saint, and pilgrims came in droves to his shrine here. The shrine was destroyed a few hundred years later during King Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries.

During my six days I caught up with computer tasks, went swimming once and met friends for two lunches. It was great to see Andrea, Sue and Ben again. It felt familiar and comfortable to return to a place I’d already spent time in.

Now I’m headed for 10 days in Belgium.

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London – my introduction

London – my introduction
London, United Kingdom

London, United Kingdom

April 10-24, 2012: Thirty-nine years ago I was in London. Two girlfriends and I were hurrying around the Continent and Britain, “doing Europe” – I think it was 13 countries in six weeks. It’s a blur now, but it was my introduction to foreign travel, and I do remember many highlights. On more recent trips to this side of the Atlantic, I have always avoided London, not being a big-city kind of person, but I decided it was time to devote two weeks to it this trip. I spent the first few days feeling overwhelmed and low-energy from my days of long walks along the Thames and then a wretched cold. But by the end of the first week I could say I really like London. There is so much to see and do!

This city is unlike anywhere I’ve ever been. And I have never climbed so many steps – at the Underground stations, in museums, up towers and domes for good views, and 84 steps up to my room! I stayed in a small, self-catering studio flat on the top floor of a Georgian-style (I think) rowhouse in the Kensington area. I bought an Oyster card, the public transit pass, and made good use of it, riding the Tube almost every day.

I met up with Sue, my friend from Ashford, and we journeyed down the River Thames to Greenwich, Sue pointing out the notable modern and ancient buildings along the way. We visited the Observatory and its exhibits about the road to determining longitude at sea, the Planetarium and of course the Prime Meridian line. Too bad we were just a bit too early for the reopening of the restored clipper ship Cutty Sark. It was fun to see a filming of Les Misérables taking place on the streets of Greenwich, actors and extras dressed in 19th century French costumes, horses draped for a funeral procession and a big French flag at half-mast.

I attended concerts at the beautiful, famous venues of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Barbican Theatre and Royal Albert Hall, the latter being a gala celebration for St. George’s Day with lots of patriotic songs and flag-waving.

I got together with a few of the women I met on the Christmas Walking Women holiday for an outing to some of the real ale pubs in the city. I enjoyed reconnecting with them.

London Walks is a well-regarded company that offers a wide range of walking tours around London. I went on four: Secret London (lots of back streets that you wouldn’t normally find out about), Tower of London (what a history! and Crown Jewels too), The Blitz (compelling) and Old Westminster by Gaslight (gas lighting is still used in some areas of London). All the tours were interesting; all the guides were good. Following the Westminster tour, many of us went into the House of Commons and the House of Lords to watch the evening proceedings from the public galleries.

London has a lot of green spaces and public parks. You could walk all day just in Kensington Gardens and the adjoining Hyde Park.

It rained most days of my stay, so I got used to wearing my waterproofs and carrying a brolly. I made brief visits to the Victoria & Albert Museum and the British Museum (Rosetta Stone, Lewis Chessmen, mummies…), but they warrant a few days each, and I just didn’t have the time or energy. I saw Buckingham Palace and Canada Gate opposite it but never saw the Changing of the Guard. I did spend over three hours at the very interesting Churchill Museum and Cabinet War Rooms. I have a very long list of places I want to go next time I come to London. I want to return asap!

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Strolling the Thames Path

Strolling the Thames Path
Maidenhead, United Kingdom

Maidenhead, United Kingdom

April 6-10, 2012: On the Easter long weekend I went on another Walking Women holiday, one of their Thames Path tours. We were a small, intimate group of six, including Caroline, our local, knowledgable and very helpful guide. What a delightful interlude in my travels this was! Really nice women to get to know, and level walks through pretty scenery. We took the train to a different starting point each day and covered the stretch between Henley and Windsor. We walked 14 miles the first day (one woman had a pedometer with her), 11 the next, 9 the next and about 5 on the last half-day.

We passed homes of the rich and famous, the Chiltern Hills on the north side of the river, riverboats and pleasure craft transiting locks, and we saw quite a few red kites soaring overhead, birds of prey that are gradually coming back from the brink of extinction. We wandered through the villages of Cookham, Marlow, Henley and others. The Cookham area is where Kenneth Grahame was inspired to write The Wind in the Willows. Henley, regarded as the spiritual home of rowing, is famous for the royal regatta course that’s been used since 1839.

One day’s route passed Dorney Lake, which belongs to Eton College and will host this summer’s Olympic rowing and kayak events. The manmade lake is 2200 metres long.

Another day we had the opportunity to explore Windsor Castle, the oldest and largest occupied castle in the world. Queen Elizabeth spends most of her private weekends here – and the Royal Standard was flying, so she was there when we were. No sightings, though.

The castle was built by William I (the Conqueror) after the Norman Conquest of 1066 and has been enlarged and rebuilt by monarchs from Henry II to Queen Elizabeth II. The castle grounds cover 13 acres and are home not just to the Royals but also to about 500 employees. Within the castle walls sits the 15th century St. George’s Chapel, known as one of the most beautiful ecclesiastical buildings in England. Here lie the tombs of 10 monarchs, including Henry VIII and his favourite wife Jane Seymour, and the current queen’s parents, George VI and Elizabeth the Queen Mother.

On our last half-day we walked through woodlands to Cliveden Estate, once home of Lady Astor. Up many steps under a canopy of yew trees, we arrived at the manicured gardens of the Parterre. The Cliveden Gardens include topiary, water features, themed gardens, and at this time of year, the Long Garden was awash in the fragrance of hyacinths.

All in all, a thoroughly enjoyable few days along the River Thames.

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Oxford and comparison with “the other place”

Oxford and comparison with "the other place"
Oxford, United Kingdom

Oxford, United Kingdom

Apr. 1-6: I was eager to visit Oxford, first, because it is the setting of TV series I watch and was home to some famous authors, it has several historic pubs, and it has the magnificent Ashmolean Museum; and second, because I wanted to see if I liked it better or not as much as Cambridge, referred to in Oxford as “the other place.” There is a very long-standing rivalry between the two universities, if not the two cities, never more apparent than in the annual Boat Race (see below).

Historically, Cambridge was born out of Oxford: in 1209 some Oxford scholars left Oxford University after a dispute with the townsfolk and eventually set up what was to become Cambridge University.

The colleges and other buildings in Oxford are lovely, of course, with spires, carvings, pillars and the like. It’s the “city of dreaming spires.” Narrow alleys and long stone walls add to the attraction. There is a lot to see: Radcliffe Camera, Bodleian Library (great exhibit on now, called Romance of the Middle Ages), Sheldonian Theatre, Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, Christ Church Cathedral, Pitt Rivers Museum, the Saxon Tower, the colleges themselves, etc.

I attended a “choral meditation” by the choir at Christ Church Cathedral and a wonderful rendition of Bach’s St. John Passion by the Magdalen College Choir (young people and boy sopranos) at the Sheldonian Theatre.

I stayed in an undergraduate student residence of Magdalen College (pronounced “Maudlin”), across the bridge from the college proper. My room had a view of Magdalen’s Great Tower and the River Cherwell, and I could hear the tower clock’s bells chime the hours. As a temporary resident of the college, I was allowed access to the grounds and chapel, and I spent a few hours one day wandering around the buildings and through the spring-flowered Water Meadow and Fellows’ Garden. The College of St. Mary Magdalen (full name) was founded in 1458, and there are now 600 students enrolled.

Oxford has a large Covered Market (dates from 1770) with every kind of food and craft on offer, and there are some major shopping streets. Truth to tell, I was not comfortable with the huge numbers of tourists, including many touring school groups from the Continent. Travelling through the less-popular winter months has spoiled me.

It was fun to visit pubs that are or have been frequented by actors and authors I’m familiar with. The White Horse has featured in Inspector Morse and has on its walls framed photographs of Morse, Lewis and Hathaway. (I hear it’s also in the 2008 movie, Oxford Murders, with Elijah Wood and John Hurt.) The Bear dates back to 1242 and played a part in a Morse episode; its walls and ceilings are covered in framed cut-off neckties of clubs and sport teams, a strange tradition. The Turf Tavern has also been in Morse; it is hidden down a narrow lane. The Eagle and Child (or “Bird and Baby” to the locals) was a meeting place of the Inklings writers’ group, including C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien.

The 158th annual Boat Race took place the day after I left Oxford. Unfortunately, it turned out to be one of the least ideal races in its history. First, a protester (against elitism) stopped the race by swimming directly into the boats’ path (and narrowly missing being decapitated by an oar). Oxford had a slight lead at that point. The race was re-started from a halfway point, and right away one of Oxford’s oars lost a blade, its boat having got too close to Cambridge’s. So Cambridge was able to pull way ahead and won the race. When Oxford passed the finish line, one of its members collapsed unconscious from exhaustion and was hospitalized for two days. There was no big celebration and no podium presentation. It’s not the way a team wants to win such a prestigious race. (Cambridge now leads by 81 wins to Oxford’s 76.)

The inevitable comparison arises between Oxford and Cambridge. All things considered, I preferred Cambridge. I found the university buildings in Oxford more spread out; in Cambridge things seem more compact. But my opinion is no doubt coloured by the following: Oxford was swarming with tourists when I was there (school break); I had much nicer accommodation in Cambridge; and I visited Cambridge earlier in my travels and was likely “fresher.” I would like to visit Oxford again during the calmer, less crowded, late-fall or late-winter times.

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Lively Cardiff

Lively Cardiff
Cardiff, United Kingdom

Cardiff, United Kingdom

March 28-April 1, 2012: Cardiff was a small, market town until the early 1800s and then experienced massive growth as a coal-exporting port, becoming the world’s largest. It became a city in 1905, was named capital of Wales in 1955 and developed a new waterfront area at Cardiff Bay in the 1990s. Now it’s a very multicultural city, one of the fastest-growing cities in Europe, and has been voted the UK’s most sociable city. It’s on track for becoming the European city with the highest student population. And it was the world’s first Fair Trade Capital City. Cardiff is also known as the City of Arcades – this is Shopping Central!

Big, urban Bute Park was being well used in the warm spring sunshine when I was there. I saw only the exterior of Cardiff Castle, but I read that it has Roman walls, a Norman keep, medieval halls and towers, exquisite Victorian restoration and a regimental museum.

The National Museum of Wales holds art, archaeology, natural history and geology. Loads of interesting exhibits and artwork. I also enjoyed the special exhibit of pictures of Queen Elizabeth (this is her Diamond Jubilee year, and many exhibits and events are being mounted around the nation). I visited the museum twice. It’s free! Outside, tulips were already blooming in profusion – and it’s still only March!

I saw a London West End theatre production of An Inspector Calls, very well done and with an ingenious set.

The redeveloped Cardiff Bay area includes the Millennium Centre of Wales (a theatre and home to arts groups) and the National Assembly of Wales building. The latter was opened in 2006, and I found it interesting because of both my Hansard past and its “green” features. Called the Senedd, the impressive building sits overlooking prime waterfront. It was designed with sustainability and energy efficiency in mind and is one of the most eco-friendly buildings in the country.
Environmental features include geothermal heating and cooling, a biomass boiler burning recycled waste wood, and rainwater collection for toilet-flushing. A wind cowl on the roof rotates in the wind, drawing out warm air and allowing cool air to enter, thus reducing the need for air conditioning.
A thousand tonnes of Welsh slate were used, and I was surprised to learn that the massive, undulating, wooden ceiling is made from British Columbia red cedar!
Glass walls let in natural light and represent the transparency of government.

Further notes for my Hansard friends:
The Welsh Assembly is the most balanced in the world between women and men members. The public gallery seats 127 people, each with screen in front, which displays the agenda and TV shot of the member speaking. The Speaker is called the Presiding Officer here. Simultaneous interpretation is provided, and the Hansard transcribers sit on either side of the Presiding Officer in the chamber.
The assembly sits only two afternoons a week! The draft Hansard online is bilingual, but the final printed version is English only, for cost reasons. Staff offices are in an adjacent building.
The mace was a gift from New South Wales’s parliament in Australia. The mace always sits in the chamber; it is not processed. The Presiding Officer doesn’t wear a gown, just regular office attire. There are no raised voices in the chamber; everyone is well behaved.
In July 2008 the NHS Redress (Wales) Measure was the first law to be made in Wales since the 10th century! A March 2011 referendum said yes to granting the National Assembly for Wales further powers for making laws in Wales. One recent law decrees that shopkeepers must charge 5 pence for a plastic shopping bag.

Bye to Wales for now. I’ll be back someday.