Frankfurt Winter Weekend, Part 2

If you’re thinking where to go out after arriving, especially if it’s closer to the evening, the Bornheim Mitte district is a good suggestion. Just a few minutes on the U4 subway line from the Central Station (Hauptbahnhof) and get out at the stop called…you guessed it, Bornheim Mitte. It’s a cosy, lively area full of cafés, bars, restaurants and shops, also great for meeting up with friends.

The next day is open to me and I can do whatever I want, so I set off towards a classic destination, the old town, planning to walk around and refresh my memories. Frankfurt’s city center around its cathedral, Dom Römer, had been severely destroyed during air bombings in the 1940s and painstakingly restored since then. Arriving at the square that is still relatively quiet for a Friday morning, I pause to take it all in. It’s a pretty sight.

I’m about to go all around the square first, but then when I start I walk past a sign next to the cathedral pointing towards the entrance to the tower. It seems encouraging and I make the detour. Hamburg doesn’t have a cathedral and I’ve had a hankering for visiting them ever since seeing Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame in my youth (yes, I know the book is vastly different) and going on my first trip to Paris shortly after. There’s a bit of construction going on around the ticket office of the Dom, I contribute 3 euros to preserving this historical structure and pull open a heavy metal door. It shuts behind me with a resounding bang after I enter.

The next 10 minutes that feel like half an hour are spent climbing a tightly spiraling narrow stone staircase, holding on to a rail on one side and gripping a rope on the other. A few other visitors make their way down as I’m going up and we carefully maneuver around each other, me pausing to let them by. One size stairs fits all! A sign next to a caged door that’s locked despite providing the first view of what seems like a balcony points upwards to the observation deck and I cover a few more flights. So that’s my morning workout and suspense kick sorted, but the views from the top of the cathedral tower are more than worth it. Like this classic one of the Frankfurt city skyline (contributing to the fact that many people think it’s a metropolis – there’s just something about skyscrapers):

Or this one of the Main river:

I love finding a place to get a good view of a city from above when I travel, it just adds something special to your day and provides some reflection time to scope out the area before joining the action on the ground. Going up the cathedral tower was more taxing physically then going down, but going down is also more likely to make you slightly dizzy.  Feeling proud of myself for being a good tourist, I walk around the square, going into every side street and passing a chattering class of French exchange students clearly just beginning their journey through snooty puberty.

I make my way towards the Kleinmarkthalle on foot, everything is close – it’s a covered marketplace that I’ve briefly been to years ago and decide to explore more after a tip from my friend. But first there’s a bookstore right by the entrance that pulls me in. While the massive volumes about Vogue shoes or Hitchcock’s blondes are way out of both my budget and suitcase range, it’s fun to leaf through them, and then I spot a small discounted daily desk calendar for 2019 with screenshots from Disney animated films. And what do you know, I actually don’t have a desk calendar for this year yet. Thank you, Frankfurt.

The market is filled with people, but it’s easy to move along, and colours, food, smells, sounds all take up my attention for a while.

Plenty of stalls offer lunch, and I settle on one that promises homey food. “Here you go, my dear, enjoy and come again,” – well, thank you. The breaded salmon with fried potatoes and a minty green sauce is delicious and it’s fun to listen to what the other diners around me are talking about. After that I treat myself to some homemade chocolates and conclude the day’s walk by doing that thing all the tourists here do.

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Oslo Reloaded, Day 2, Opera

The Oslo Opera House was definitely a major higlight during last year’s trip for me. What would it be like, we wondered, to see a performance there? One year later we find ourselves with tickets to see a ballet based on Ghosts by Henrik Ibsen, one of Norway’s most famous playrights, but more on that later.

There is never a bad time to visit the Oslo Opera House, really. The building seems to transform along with the time of day and the changing light. Each view of and from it is exciting and unique. With the traditional notion of walls, gravity and height on the mind, it is somewhat surreal to find yourself not only going in, but walking on the Opera House before you even realize it. The change of levels is so gradual, even gentle, that the view of the Oslo Fjord from the rooftop catches you by surprise.

Space and peace are the main impressions emanating from the Operahuset, as well as a sense of welcoming. It snowed in the morning. I look down at my pointed black ankle boots and my friend’s smart black pumps, and suggest we take the steps stretching out in front of us. There’s an expanse of of the building leading upwards, basically just a walkway, but that’s for another day and in other shoes.

People are walking everywhere, some are sitting down and reading or just gazing out over the city. Blues, whites, marble and glass ripple, blend together and reflect each other in the rays of the slowly setting sun. I am enchanted.

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To me, Henrik Ibsen was previously known for his plays A Doll’s House and Peer Gynt. My friend had read Ghosts before the trip and summarized it for me. Subsequently, we were both asking the same question: how can this complicated material with many-layered family drama and tragedy stretching over two generations be translated to modern ballet dancing? While admiring the spacious interior of the Operahuset’s foyer, which is just as intriguing as the outside, we got a program. In the introduction director Marit Moum Aune immediately answers that taking Ibsen’s text as a basis for a dance performance is indeed a complicated feat (“terrible idea”), but as those involved were, we too are now intrigued.

We take our seats in the auditorium we viewed a year ago from above during our tour of the Operahuset and in a few minutes lights go out as the ballet begins. The set is at first glance minimalistic, but reflective of the dark shadows in the character’s pasts, both literally and metaphorically. As the mother soon to be surprised by the return or her grown-up son dances across the stage, we are pulled deeper and deeper in to this eerily calm and increasingly tense atmosphere. A screen shows a family of three slowly making their way forward, as if in a dream, the Fjord behind them and the unurried noise of waves coming in time with their steps. Is it a dream? Someone’s memory? Or indeed, ghosts? We don’t quite know, and the possibility of interpretation, the freedom of it is exhilirating. Fast-paced dance sequences involving the whole dance ensemble on stage seamlessly interchange with the slower ones, as agonies, past and present all collide, so that it becomes occasionally difficult to undersand who is who, but at the end you are left breathless, just like the rest of the audience. The immersion is so complete, it takes a while to come back to the real world.

 

 

Oslo Reloaded, Day 2, Ekebergparken Sculpture Park

I add the various smoked salmon to the eggs and bacon (mais oui) on my plate, and then my eyes fall on the waffle iron standing on the counter opposite. You can make your own waffles here? And put Nutella on them? Or raspberry jam? Oh, wait, you’re supposed to spray the inside of the waffle iron with this can, which as it turns out, is not whipped cream? Act casual, just act casual.

The breakfast buffet at the Scandic Grensen hotel has won me over. Or maybe that already happened when I saw the salmon. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day! Good food is not to be taken for granted, and neither is good breakfast! I’m feeling ridiculously happy that we will get to come here one more time before leaving, and I know without a doubt that I will stuff my face.

“There are two types of people: those who want to know when is breakfast in the hotel, and those who want to know until when is breakfast in the hotel.”

We board a tram at Oslo S and venture out a little outside of the city, but not too much, and get out to a view of the slightly hilly Ekebergparken sculpture park. The air is fresh and invigorating and I’m itching for a panoramic view of Oslo, which I get soon enough. It’s exciting to recognize familiar areas from above.

A few minutes later I get a shot of the Oslo Fjord, then I just stare for a while. It’s very peaceful up here and I like the understated beauty of bare trees waiting for spring. Nature will take its course and everything will soon wake up.

Ekebergparken is also a national heritage site, and scattered throughout the park are indeed sculptures, each arresting and thought-provoking in its own way. Ever so often a work of art will catch your eye and pull you out of your reverie brought on by trees, moss-covered stones and thoughts of Norwegian trolls. It’s an interesting state of perpetual contrast. Another sculpture by Sean Henry, Woman (Being Looked At), stands in the passageway of the Folketeatret, where we saw Ylvis last year. The exhibit in Ekebergparken, Walking Woman, inspires our purposeful stride. Concave Face by Hilde Maehlum captivates me with its unusual beauty.

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Anatomy of an Angel by Damien Hirst leads to a monologue from me on the representation of angels in Supernatural (“Cas!”). Then I quickly forget my thread as a troop of children on ponies locked by adults in the front, middle and back passes us, with the kid in the middle astride a particularly fat pony. Its belly is almost level with its hooves and I’m delighted. A sign nearby points in the direction of a riding school on the territory, and sure enough, in a few minutes we discover it. The place is filled with happy family activity, sheep are bleating and there’s a small cabin labeled Kaniners, which attracts my attention because bunnies are Kaninchen auf Deutsch.

Art comes in all shapes and forms. After identifying that the disembodied voice half-hissing in a British accent, “Shed the body…shed the body…redemption” (Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets vibes, anyone?) was actually coming from the base of a lamppost, we decided it was time to head down to the Barcode district. Getting there on foot from Ekebergparken is entirely possible, just follow the tram tracks and then keep walking towards those fascinating buildings (mind the construction site on the way). We make sure not to look towards the opera house so as to keep the element of surprise alive for the evening’s activities.

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Oslo Reloaded, Day 1

I must admit, gazing out at the Oslo Fjord, with bright sunshine illuminating the fabulous waterfront views from the Aker Brygge neighborhood, is not a bad way to start a Friday morning.

It’s just gone 9 AM and we’ve been up for 6 hours. As a result, the pleasant anticipation of a full day ahead is even stronger than usual, while I nibble on my cinnamon roll from Narvesen to tide me over until our afternoon check-in at the hotel where we’ve just left our bags. They had a locker room downstairs involving some card scanning and (at first) complicated twists, plus memorizing of locker numbers. This proved to be a theme during the whole trip. Oh, the cinnamon roll was accompanied by my beverage of choice – hot chocolate, all for the sweet price of 25 NOK (roughly 3 euros). Especially during a weekend getaway, Narvesen or Seven-Eleven is an easy solution for snacks – both shop chains are to be found almost everywhere in the city and are friendly to your budget.

Just as last year, the brilliant sunshine makes for some active instagramming and we don’t want to go inside anywhere.

Walking around Oslo is easy – checking out all the previous trip’s discoveries in and around Aker Brygge with the breeze from the Oslo Fjord blowing in your face sweeps away any remaining drowsiness and we enthusiastically fan out through the streets around us. There’s the National Theater and the Royal Palace – no frost on the ground this year. Our feet seem to know where to go before we think about it. One lady asks us if it’s allowed to take a picture of the guards by the palace, and we feel like locals. We get our 24-hour Oslo Passes from the Oslo Visitor Centre at the Oslo S central station. After last year’s searching for it, everything goes quickly and the button that opens the door is still the same.

Next we find ourselves in the National Gallery, for what is a visit to Oslo without art, and what is art in Oslo without a bit of, you guessed it, Edvard Munch. Plans of the museum layout are available and each room is conveniently numbered at its beginning – I love me a system. So no FOMO and you see everything. The scope of the collection surprises me, from antique busts and heads to Russian icons, to impressionism, and of course plenty of Norwegian art. I dutifully stop in front of the version of Munch’s Scream on display here. In fact, there is a whole room filled only with Munch’s works. After a while I drift to the next artists and forget myself as I stop in front of View of Dresden by Moonlight by Johan Christian Dahl, one of Norway’s most famous landscape painters. The enchanting panorama, emanating both serenity and mystery, fills my vision. For a few minutes the memory of where I am recedes as I stare at this earlier view of a city in the country I now call home. Harald Sohlberg is another new discovery, and at the end of our visit I succesfully locate a postcard with Street in Røros and its eye-catching play of lines and colors in the museum shop. Always check out a museum shop in Oslo – you will most likely be pleasantly surprised.

It’s Friday night and we’re going out with the rest of them – DDR is performing in the Oslo Spectrum arena and it’s huge. I can’t stop looking behind me at the rows and rows ascending. They fill quickly, as does the standing area. We make our way right to the barrier in front of the stage and security hands out earplugs. DDR is a Norwegian comedy band performing local songs in exaggerrated German, as well as some actual German hits. I laugh myself hoarse to Nena’s 99 Luftballons and am taken back to an 80s dance night during a dedicated rendition of Falco’s Amadeus.

The blend of German in our Oslo trip is working out very well, but it hits its peak as what we’ve been waiting for all evening finally happens. We lose our minds and I my limb coordination as no other than Ylvis takes the stage. “Alles gut?!” Bård Ylvisåker bellows. Alles is more than gut as Ylvis, both dressed in military attire, launch in to a highly energetic, brand new performance of a German version of The Fox (What Does the Fox Say?).

Post ear-plug cheering is still ringing in my ears as I hit the hay.

 

Tokyo: Chilling in Daikanyama

After the shrill excitement of Harajuku we opted for a change of pace and walked to the Daikanyama district from Shibuya. It was a pleasant morning with a slight breeze and our map took us along quieter Tokyo streets, some of them residential, some clearly business-like, here a sleepy cat silently lounging on a porch, there a beautiful Japanese house, possibly a spa of some kind, promising miracles on its territory. Trees were still blooming with flowers and there weren’t as many high-rise buildings to see as in Shibuya. The tempo was decidedly more laid-back than what we had experienced the day before, and both our guidebooks described Daikanyama as wealthy, but at the same time low-key and charming.

We explored a big street stretching out in front of us, looked at shop windows and cafes, stepped in to side streets once again and reemerged, stopped for a sit-down in a courtyard where we promptly got bitten by very efficient mosquitos, found another puppy shop five times as expensive as the one we discovered in Shibuya and stumbled on a number of shop signs I would have gladly taken home with me. Well-dressed young mothers walked down the streets with their babies in strollers and despite it being a weekday I felt like it was another Saturday.

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From Daikanyama we walked to the Meguro river and along it, enjoying the continued tranquility, apartment buildings around us, stopping at more shop windows and exploring a cosy, winding street full of cafes and local flair. There were benches along the river that some people were smoking on, or quietly eating with their backs to the street (like we did later). The high-rise didn’t swallow the low-rise and everything just seemed to work together.

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Tokyo: Out and About in Harajuku

What would a visit to Tokyo be without becoming Harajuku girls for an afternoon? No, we didn’t dress up, but since we already stood out due to our height alone, we figured we were good. Filled to the brim with the spacious green beauty of Yoyogi park we set off towards Harajuku for what we suspected would surely be a change of scene. Easy to reach on foot from the park, the district is only a few minutes away. It’s also possible to walk there from Shibuya, or take the subway to Harajuku station.

Starting with the more upscale shopping boulevard Omotesandō is generally recommended and it’s a good way to flow in to Harajuku with the rest of the throngs of people making their way there. Stepping in to side streets that catch your eye because of a shop window, a temple or a restaurant may lead to interesting discoveries and that’s how we found this wonderful place for lunch.

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Once again I can confirm that, unfortunately, I don’t speak Japanese, but the power of taking pictures ensures that there is someone to ask what this place is called and where it is, should we want to come again. We picked it because it looked inviting and soothing, plus they had an English menu lying outside. In we went!

The restaurant was dimly lit inside, adding to the cosy feeling we immediately experienced upon setting foot there. Once I looked up and saw that ceiling completely covered with red and white lanterns, I was enchanted. While we waited for our food I took a look around and snapped one gorgeous wall for some more local flavour among our memories.

Cold jasmine tea on ice without alcohol (an option our waitress thankfully pointed out to us before we accidentally ordered the other version) was incredibly refreshing after the humidity outside and all that walking. Among the many delicious-looking dishes on the pictures in the menu we settled for avocado tempura – usually deep fried vegetables, but fruit works just as well! We also split three sizable meat dumplings between us – they disappeared too quickly to take a picture.

We decided to explore the famous Takeshita street to get the Harajuku experience, and it certainly delivered. Due to the aforementioned tendency for locals, and consequently tourists, to move forward along their left, progress worked out fine despite predictable crowds. Politeness and sometimes a little patience are all that’s needed.

If Harajuku can be at least partly defined by Takeshita street, then it was certainly everything we thought it would be: colourful, occasionally psychedelic, lively, at times eccentric, bursting with the kawaii (cute, often in connection with popular culture) and spilling with enthusiastic consumerism. Sweets, shoes, sunglasses, clothes, jewelry – you name it, in abundance. Shops often descended to basement levels, making it entirely possible to disappear in one building for hours on end.

A particular interest seems to be dressing up pets. What I at first mistook for a baby clothes shop with my nearsighted gaze turned out to be Pet Paradise, full of suits, hats, shirts and toys for (mostly small) pets, leaning heavily on Disney themes. We spotted a cat and owl cafe not far away, but after the initial excitement decided to continue, as the fees were somewhat outside our budget range. It’s recommended to read up on this a little before going in. Maybe some other time I will have my Harry Potter moment in an owl cafe.

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Tip: taking pictures in shops is tempting, but be sure to check if there’s a sign asking not to.

Harajuku also has its own Disney store – a not unwelcome discovery! Similar to many other shops I had explored a few months before in Disneyland Paris, it was still very pretty and looked very at home among everything that made up Takeshita street. Bonus – a big HD screen covered the wall behind the cashier counter, with songs from Disney animated films playing one after the other. It felt completely natural, appropriate to the travel experience, even, to stand there for a while and sing along (not too loudly) to A Whole New World, Let It Go and I See the Light.

Dessert opportunities pop up at convenient intervals, and the extremely realistic, high-quality fake reproductions of the food certainly get the appetite going. We stopped at Angel’s Heart for crêpes – a not at all uncommon snack in Tokyo. The fakes are displayed unrolled, so you can see the display of all the fabulousness that will fill your sweet treat once its ready. Mine contained a perfect small slice of chocolate cake, whipped cream, a scoop of vanilla ice cream and sliced banana and strawberries. Obviously and judging by the people around us it was absolutely allowed to eat this on the street, so there are small exceptions to the rule.

 

 

 

 

 

Tokyo: Yoyogi Park

I love to search for the green heart of a big city, and so we set off on a walk to Yoyogi Park. It’s reachable on foot from Shibuya within half an hour (maybe 40 minutes if you stop to check Googlemaps) and we left the fast pace of our temporary home behind us, passing more subdued areas with a few shops and cafes, before finally arriving at the gates to the park.

I have to say I caught my breath, there was just something about them. The clearly Japanese style is of course impressive and distinctive, but it was as if we really were about to enter a gateway to yet another different world within the excitement of this one. There they stood, those towering columns of the Southeast entrance, and beyond them a mass of still summery green and trees.

Yoyogi park is open for 24 hours and it’s a wonderful discovery for those who love to walk, especially in wide, open spaces, as well as those who know their plants and trees. Curving tree trunks, leafy crowns meeting overhead, ferns and acorns scattered along  the paths like green forest gems.

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We were walking through the park planning to stop at the Meiji Shrein on the way, when we saw a sign pointing towards some steps and saying Kiyosama’s Well. Intrigued, we paid the 500 admission fee, got a helpful map describing the individual spots we were about to encounter.

What we had discovered was actually a gem, a park within a park, the Meiji Jingu Inner Garden. After the Meiji Restoration of 1868 the garden was owned by the Imperial Family. An enchanting green respite full of yet more plants, trees and beautiful nooks and crannies, the garden also stands out due to repeated mentions of the love, or “consideration”, Emperor Meiji had for his Empress Shoken. These feelings led to the construction of the Kakuun-tei, a teahouse unfortunately burned down during WWII, but carefully rebuilt in 1958. Empress Shoken was said to have loved this teahouse and “rested” there when she visited the garden, spending time by the pond nearby or strolling along a winding path lined with azaleas. It’s a hilly area, but with a “gentle slope”, according to our booklet – another loving detail. It certainly is a wonderful picture to imagine and I couldn’t help feeling curious about this woman. There is a lot of interesting information to read about her, and among other things it turns out she was a talented and active poet. She was also a whopping three years older than her betrothed, gasp, so her birthyear was officially changed to allow the marriage.

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The Meiji Shrine is a Shinto shrine and here too a strong connection to Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken is apparent. Their graves are not located in the Shrine itself, but to quote, the “souls are enshrined” there. Before entering the territory you join other visitors next to a small fountain with multiple wooden gourds, and, following their lead (or covertly watching the Japanese if you did not read up on this beforehand), you fill a gourd with water, pour some in your hand, then some in the other hand, moisten your mouth and cheeks, then proceed. If you like, you can buy a fortune and make a contribution to the Shrine – 100 yen drops in to a wooden box and after a bit of rummaging you pull out a small bilingual scroll with a poem written (most likely) either by Emperor Meiji or Empress Shoken. A nice souvenir and a pleasant reminder of a visit to an interesting place filled with a sense of peace and at the same time some weighty history. Obviously the religious ritual isn’t obligatory, especially for tourists, but it’s a nice custom and the clear explanations tactfully placed throughout the Shrine make it easy to feel included. There are several Shinto prayer rituals described in the Shrine of varying degrees of openness and it’s touching to read the messages visitors leave behind.