Svendborg Denmark

Svendborg has a tendency to linger, long after a visit. Home to my beloved Danish family for many generations, and my mother’s hometown, Svendborg sits by the sea, on the island of Fyn (Funen), in south-central Denmark, an easy drive southwest of Copenhagen via the østbroen/storebæltsbroen (Great Belt) suspension bridge. A trip there last August with the sisters, an invitation to celebrate a 50th wedding anniversary. Delicious days of feasting and toasting, and long leisurely meals in the sunshine. Wrapped in kindness and love, overflowing with hospitality, sweet memories to hold close.

Located at the head of a bay, the natural harbor in Svendborg encouraged seafaring and trade. These days, maritime business and boat building have shifted to tourism and the service industry. Historic wooden sailing vessels share harbor space with cargo ships, pleasure boats and ferries. Svendborg has seen many changes over the years, but the historic flavor and market square remain the same. Cobblestone pedestrian streets lined with half-timbered buildings provide a wealth of shopping and eating options, a mix of local and chain offerings. Temptations to stop for coffee and a vienerbrød pastry, a soft-is (ice cream) or a pølse (hot dog) beckon at every turn. Wandering the town can easily fill a whole day.

Venturing out of town (whether on land or by sea) can lead to roads that travel through stunning storybook villages, farmlands and seascapes. The archipelago of islands surrounding Svendborg can be reached via ferries, boats and bridges. The southern Fyn landscape is dotted with manor houses, fairy-tale castles and historic grain mills. Thatched-roof farmhouses hug narrow roads, surrounded by great sweeps of rolling hills and farmland, modern windmills on the horizon. Day-trips to Tåsinge, Langeland, Thurø and Ærø are all within reach from Svendborg, though you’ll wish you had more time, wherever you go in the archipelago.

At home, outside my southern Vermont window, the turkeys have come out of the January woods to wander in the gravel driveway, the ground frozen under a thin blanket of snow, the sky a bright blue. A bit like the blue summer sea of Svendborg Sund.

Vilhelm Hammershøi at Scandinavia House

The exhibit – Painting Tranquility: Masterworks by Vilhelm Hammershøi from The National Gallery of Denmark – is on exhibit at Scandinavia House in NYC through Saturday, February 27th.  Long a fan of his moody and introspective interiors, a recent trip to NYC gave me the chance to see his works in person. Hammershøi’s paintings of interiors and streetscapes capture beauty and mystery in the moments of everyday activity. The exhibit offers an intimate look into his poetic artwork, and offered this visitor a lovely hour of quiet and calm, and a respite from busy, crowded and noisy city streets.

Hammershøi worked mainly in his native city of Copenhagen, painting portraits, architecture, interiors and the surrounding countryside, in a palette of deeply nuanced grays. Muted paintings of an austere and somber sensibility with light infused interiors, abandoned streets and abstracted, unpopulated landscapes. Rooms with a solitary figure, face and task obscured from the viewer. Portrait subjects facing the viewer, unadorned, faces stripped bare, devoid of narrative detail. Images fraught with a sense of tension, privacy and solitude. The focus on light and space, creating a dreamlike, introspective melancholy.

Outside, the grays and browns of this Vermont winter, perfectly capture the mood of Hammershøi’s paintings. A reminder that there is beauty to be found in the muted tones of a frozen landscape.


Nordic Orkney

Our stay in the Highlands earlier this year would have been incomplete without a trip to Orkney, an archipelago of islands sprinkled across the sea, 10 miles north of the Scottish mainland, and 300 nautical miles from the south-western coast of Norway. With only a few days to explore, we stuck to the western part of Mainland Orkney, with its collection of many Neolithic, Pictish and Viking construction remnants.

We took the 2-hour car ferry from the harbour town of Scrabster to Stromness – from the Norse strøm (strong tides) + nes (headland) – the second most populated town in Orkney. Called Hamnavoe (safe harbour) in Viking times, we could easily have spent several days wandering the narrow slate and cobbled lanes, flanked with stone houses, docks, and walls – a dizzying array of gorgeous stonework. The inevitable rain-shower (even on a day that started out clear, sunny and bluebird blue) gave us a chance to pop into the Pier Arts Centre, to wander the galleries and peek out at the rain-soaked and sinuous Hepworth sculpture gracing the courtyard.

With the sun shining again (and fortified by a tailgate picnic of local beremeal biscuits and Orkney cheddar), we headed into a pastoral wonderland of gently rolling hills, the sea never far from sight. Around every bend in the road, standing stones and mounded landforms suggested the possibility of undiscovered chambered tombs, stone circles and the deep mysteries of former civilisations.

Nordic traces were few, and far between, but placenames, describing landscape features (though anglicised by map-makers and surveyors), suggested a derivation from Old Norse, and signage sported variants of Magnus and Ola in their names. In folklore, the Orkney trow may have drawn on connections to the Norwegian trolls. The Viking presence was clearly evident in the settlement at the Brough of Birsay (an archaeological site spanning the Pictish and Norse periods), and the collection of 12th-century runic inscriptions (graffiti!) inside the Maeshowe chambered cairn.

At the Barony Mill, they still grind locally grown bere, an ancient form of barley that may have been brought to Britain by Vikings in the 8th century. In its early days, it was also called “bygge”, originating from bygg, the Old Norse term for barley. Ideal for northern climates, the relatively low-yield crop is tolerant of the cool temperatures and short growing season in Orkney and Northern Norway, and is still used for traditional bread and beer making. At the Orkney Brewery, I found beer (øl and ale) with names like Northern Light, Norseman, Dragonhead – and Skull Splitter, named after Thorfinn Einarsson the 7th Viking Earl of Orkney.

Flying on the occasional flagpole was the Orkney flag. Adopted in 2007, it includes the colours red and yellow from the Scottish and Norwegian royal coats of arms, and symbolizes the islands’ Scottish and Norwegian heritage. The previous (unofficial flag) of Orkney was attributed to St Magnus (Magnus Erlendsson was Earl of Orkney from 1108 to 1117), and consisted of a yellow field with a red Nordic cross.

I found the Norse influences to be elusive, and buried deep in Scottish history, but this northern land and seascape must have hinted at home for early voyagers and settlers. Within the span of two days, we toured through a spectacular island landscape with a rugged coastline and a long history of farming and fishing. We hiked through lush green pastures (and dodged sheep manure) to find bird blinds on remote hillsides and tucked under giant windmills. We spotted families of seals swimming along the shore, heard the call and saw the bright orange beaks of oyster catchers, a familiar Scottish coastal sound/sight. We wandered around castle ruins – turned into a soccer field by local youth. We drove across moorlands, rich in peat used for whisky distilling, the wild heather just coming into purple bloom.

We visited circles of stones and circular brochs, and walked across to an island on a causeway accessible only two hours either side of low tide. Our self-guided tour included a visit to several UNESCO World Heritage sites, including the 5,000 year old excavated village of Skara Brae, (Orkney’s neolithic star), the magnificent Ring of Brodgar stone circle, the Standing Stones of Stenness, the Broch of Gurness and the chambered tombs of Maeshowe. All surrounded by an air of mystery, with researchers still debating the purpose and meaning of the constructions.

We squeezed in a lot, at a surprisingly relaxed pace, a testament to the concentration of rich neolithic and historical treasures in the Western part of Mainland Orkney. Back home again, the golden beauty of the Vermont hills, still bright with the last remnants of autumn foliage – ease the longing for the breathtaking land and sea vistas of the far north. For now.

On Sunny Days I Forgive the Bad Weather

Linked by one long main street, and collectively known as the Seaboard Villages, the small towns of Hilton, Balintore and Shandwick sit facing the sea along the Moray Firth in the Highlands of Scotland. Extending along the shore on either side of the villages are coastal walking paths that hug the seashore, curve along cliffs and traipse through farm pasture.

At Balintore, a small Seaboard Sculpture Trail celebrates local lore and the maritime heritage. Three giant salmon stand in a pocket park and nearby, in the water, a mermaid sits perched on a boulder, the tide rising and lowering around her. The villages are within walking distance of two magnificent standing stones, the Shandwick Stone and the (replica) Hilton-of-Cadboll stone, part of a popular Tourist Trail that features the stone carvings of the Picts. Quiet and remote, these friendly towns have much to offer a visitor. But on this spit of land reaching into the sea, it is the magnificent coastal landscape that is the feature attraction, with walking trails that offer fresh sea breezes, stunning landforms and dramatic skies.

Six weeks into our stay in Scotland, the time has flown by in a flurry of work activity. Fortunately the light, long days have given an extra measure of time to explore and go walking. Like being out at sea, the weather changes frequently. Even on sunny, blue sky mornings, clouds seem to bubble up out of nowhere, coloring the sky black with rain clouds. The winds blow cool, at times fierce. The daily weather forecast regularly includes rain showers and sunny spells, along with predictions of frost. But I am learning to trust, that on most days, the sun returns. And when it does, it shines so brightly, and turns the sky and sea such a gorgeous blue, that I quickly forgive the bad weather.

Along the Moray Firth in Scotland

A short business trip to Scotland two weeks ago, a chance to spend time along the Moray and Cromarty Firths in the northwest highlands of Scotland. Close to the North Sea, a pastoral landscape of rolling hills with snow-capped high peaks in the far distance. Large swaths of farmland intersected by small towns, whisky distilleries and large estates, oil rigs out to sea. Fields green with rapeseed, the promise of sunny yellow carpets soon to follow. A stone dovecote standing sentinel in a sea of deep brown, freshly tilled earth. Clusters of bright yellow daffodils, huddled against stone walls, fruit trees just coming into bloom. Sheep and cattle out to pasture. Along roadsides and edgeways, tangles of mustard-yellow gorse, dense and thorny, ideal cover for bird nests. Everywhere, ancient stone walls, churches and castles, in all states of repair and ruin. The early spring weather chilly and breezy, with a mix of drizzle and sunshine. Our hosts and the staff at Glenmorangie House, generous of heart, offering comfort, food and drink for soul and body. Walks along the shore and on country lanes, a welcome interlude from busy, jet-lagged days.

Back in Vermont, the spring lags behind. But the days are lighter and longer, the songbirds are back and the maple syrup harvest is stored away. The walking trail along the swollen, muddy West River is mostly free of ice and snow. And there is beauty in the bones and contours of the landscape, still visible through the leafless trees. Without the deep shade of leaves, the forest floor is bathed in sunshine, the elusive and short-lived ephemeral spring flowers soon to beckon with their bright blooms.

Ski Jumping in Vermont

Brattleboro, Vermont is home to the historic Harris Hill Ski Jump where local and international jumpers compete annually during Winter Carnival Week. Within walking distance of Main Street, built on a wooded in-town hill, the jump is sheltered by tall evergreens to protect it from crosswinds. A friendly event where spectators can climb the stairs along the side of the jump and be close enough to see jumpers take off and land (90 meters later), and to hear the whoosh of lithe athletes flying by at highway speeds.

Built by daredevil skier Fred Harris, from the ground up in 1922, the jump is the only 90 meter ski jump in New England and one of only six in the USA of this size and caliber. The wooden jump closed in 2005, but with the support of the local and international community, was able to open again after an extensive renovation and the addition of a steel launch ramp.

The first known ski jumper was Norwegian Olaf Rye, who jumped 9.5 meters in 1809. By 1862, ski jumpers were competing in official contests. At a time when ski jumping has all but died out throughout New England, Harris Hill is keeping the tradition alive. This year, jumpers came from the UK, Canada, Norway, Finland, USA, Slovenia, Turkey and Italy. In 1938, Norway’s Birger Ruud won at 67.1 meters. In 2015, the longest jump was 100 meters by Ziga Mandl of Slovenia.

Two weekends ago, armed and fortified by wood-fired pizza and locally brewed beer, the happy crowd cheered the flyers on despite snowy weather, freezing temperatures and a town-wide power outage. For this spectator, a rare chance to see the Norwegian flag flying in southern Vermont.

Nordic NYC

A December business trip to NYC was filled with good food, art, the company of friends and a long walk along the new stretch of the High Line at sunset. But no visit to NYC is complete without a few detours in search of scandilicious treats and a stop at the Scandinavia House. The highlights? Tasty smørrebrød and gløgg at Copenhagen (cozy and bright at dusk on a dark and chilly day), a smorgasbord tasting plate at Smørgås (in a dining room with a large birch tree installation) and the exhibit Iceland: Artists Respond to Place.

The exhibit, a chance for viewers to experience the landscape of Iceland through video, painting, photography, sculpture and site-specific wall installations. Artwork that tells the stories of a hostile and majestic environment. Rivers, volcanoes, ice caps and waterfalls featured in a diverse range of mediums, across the seasons of extreme light and dark. A striking site-specific lava rock installation by Ragna Róbertsdóttir, covered a large space on the gallery wall, an application of small stone granules within a precise rectangular frame, spectacular when viewed both from a distance and close up. Other work included the Skjol/Shelters photography series by Einar Falur Ingólfsson, the paint-encrusted, detailed work of delicate, brightly colored flora by Eggert Pétursson, Guðjón Ketilsson’s Stigar/Paths (a wall drawing/text map of ancient, beautiful letters of the artist’s meanderings through Reykjavik), Þórdís Alda Sigurðardóttir’s brew of found objects, and the Olafur Eliasson Aerial River Series, 2000, a series of 42 spectacular prints.

Iceland: Artists Respond to Place features the work of Birgir Andrésson, Guðrún Einarsdóttir, Olafur Eliasson, Georg Guðni Hauksson, Einar Falur Ingólfsson, Guðjón Ketilsson, Eggert Pétursson, Ragna Róbertsdóttir, Egill Sæbjörnsson, Katrín Sigurðardóttir, and Þórdís Alda Sigurðardóttir. Last week! Last Chance! Through Saturday, January 10, 2015. Free admission.