Nature’s Bounty – Foraging in Finland

The first time I visited Finland the forest had been covered in snow.  This was not the light dusting that softens the edges of my home city on rare winter days, but a thick eiderdown, disguising shapes, hiding obstacles, obscuring paths.  The frozen lake was our playground; a trip out on to the ice to check the nets laid beneath, a whirl on the snowmobile or a slow, flat trek on skis across what, in the summer would be open water.  On land we stayed close to the cabin.  We kept away from the forest.

Returning in August I was keen to experience what I had been unable to before, to lose myself in the verdant heart of the island.  And lose myself I might.  Here paths appear and disappear, the terrain changes rapidly from bog to meadow to boulder field, the light, filtered through the dense canopy is muted and misleading.  It would be easy to imagine yourself the protagonist of a fairy tale, witch or wolf waiting in the wings, but the forest does not exude malice.  It is a home, a resource, a friend.

With the guidance of our host we learnt to see beyond the green, to spot the yellow, the black and the brown of fungi.  And once our eyes had adjusted our baskets quickly filled.  With supplies so plentiful we were able to dry some of our haul to take home, the forest still providing many days and many miles away.

After the mushrooms came berries, punnets of blueberries and lingonberries, staining our fingers and our faces with the evidence of abundance.  Made in to jam, cooked in to pastries, the forest’s fruits felt full of flavour compared to their supermarket kin even topping slightly burnt pancakes cooked on the campfire.

For all the bounty of the forest, the lake was not ignored.  The nets provided fish for the table more than once and I could not detect the muddiness sometimes found in those that inhabit freshwater.

But perhaps the highlight were the crayfish.  These tasty little crustaceans are the centrepiece of the traditional rapujuhlat or crayfish party, held in homes across Finland and Sweden in late summer.  Pre prepared crayfish can be bought in supermarkets but we were lucky enough to catch our own.  They are cooked in a brine seasoned with dill, served simply with bread and washed down by copious amounts of schnapps to the accompaniment of drinking songs, a memorable experience, if perhaps a rather hazy one!

 

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Embracing calm at the cabin – Finland

There are times when the world seems to stop for an instant, everything falls silent, we find ourselves able to breathe more deeply, and a flood of contentment rushes in with the fresh air.  In these brief windows of calm I am overwhelmed by gratitude for life, for the series of random events that have led to me being who I am and where I am, for the here and the now.  Past worries are forgotten, pressures of the future pushed aside, the present is allowed to exist in all its glory.

I had one such experience last month as I sat, slowly cooling, on the porch of a sauna, surrounded by woods and looking down to the water beyond as a tranquil evening descended.  How lucky I am to be here I thought.  Here being the immediate geographic, an island on Lake Päijänne, a little over two hours north of Helsinki, Finland, here being the temporal, at the precise point the sky moved towards the ‘blue moment’ as the light began to fade in the shortening evening of Northern late summer, and here being the philosophic, the chance encounters that brought me a Finnish friend.

We who have the privilege to travel, we lucky, fortunate few, who by some twist of fate, some chance of circumstance, have been born in the right place, the right time and whose luck has held beyond the success of our birth, need times such as these.  We need to step back and take stock, to appreciate the now.  We need to forget the next destination, the ticking off of lists, the collecting of experiences and instead, actually experience.  There is great richness in the simple things, in peace and quiet, in time spent with friends and family, not doing but being.

Travel teaches us many lessons.  It makes us tolerant of difference, it provides insight in to our strengths and our weaknesses, it makes us appreciate what we have, if only we stop for a moment to let it sink in.

 

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Artà and Ses Païsses – Medieval and Bronze Age Mallorca

The town of Artà lies nestled in a valley in the rural north east of Mallorca.  It is not easily accessible without your own transport and as a result has remained largely untouched by tourism despite the treasures it has to offer.

A warren of Medieval streets winds inexorably upwards, culminating in 180 steep steps which lead to the town’s heart and highest point, the walled Sanctuary of Saint Salvador.  From here any efforts exerted in the climb will be rewarded with uninterrupted views across Artà’s terracotta rooftops to the mountains beyond.  There are plenty of shady spots to regain your breath and a café serving refreshments as well as a small modern church, built on the site of a 14th century original intentionally burnt in the early 19th century after it was used to treat patients during Europe’s last outbreak of bubonic plague.

Just below the Sanctuary squats the imposing church of the Transfiguration of the Lord whose bold, neo-gothic bulk dominates Artà’s skyline.  It is to the side of this church that the steps to the top of the hill begin, flanked by stone carved angels.

Artà is also home to a number of museums, including the interesting and eclectic Regional Museum whose exhibits range from natural history to archaeology.  It was at the museum we first learnt of Ses Païsses, the foremost Bronze Age site on the island which, despite its importance, is not particularly well known or indeed easy to find.  Armed with directions from a friendly curator, we drove our car to the outskirts of town, identified the correct side street and followed it through farmland to a clearing amongst trees.  A very reasonable 2€ entrance fee paid, we continued onwards to be greeted by the impressive mass of the settlement’s stone gateway.

Beyond the protective curve of the outer wall a number of structures survive, including an atalaia or watchtower.

As with so many ancient places, Ses Païsses exudes an atmosphere heavy with history.  The past is palpable; you can feel it in the stones, worn by centuries of human touch, hear the whispers of memories in the rustle of the surrounding trees.  It is the trees that for me brought the most magic, life in a place so long abandoned.

And so our visit to Mallorca ends.  Next up we head north, to the forests of Finland.

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Roman Ruins and Medieval Walls – Alcúdia, Mallorca a town full of history

Alcúdia, just in land from the north coast of Mallorca, is a history lover’s dream.  The atmospheric, winding streets of the old town are a great place to lose yourself, camera in hand, amidst the higgledy-piggledy, colourful architecture; every crossroads opening up to reveal a new and enticing path to explore.

Alcúdia is encircled by a fourteenth century late Medieval wall, built to protect the town from pirate raids.  It is possible to walk along sections of the wall and out on to the tops of some of the towers that stud it.  Here you get a bird’s eye view of the maze of streets and jumble of roofs below, catching glimpses of everyday life, washing on a line, a TV set framed by half closed shutters, children’s toys discarded.

Like many Mallorcan towns, Alcúdia is host to a market which takes place twice a week on Tuesday and Sunday mornings and is a mix of fresh produce and stalls selling crafts, souvenirs, clothing and other goods.

Whilst most visitors to Alcúdia will walk the walls and perhaps poke a head inside the stocky and squat seventeenth century church of St Jaume, not everyone will know that metres away, on the opposite side of the road from the church lie an impressive collection of Roman ruins.

Scattered amongst peaceful fields of flowers are the remains of Pollentia, founded shortly after the arrival of the Romans on the island in 123 BC.  Chosen for its views over the surrounding countryside, and down to the sea beyond, the site today can be categorised in to three, the walls and columns of the residential area, known as La Portella, which lies nearest to the entrance to the site and consists of the skeletal outlines of a number of private houses and the roads linking them, the Forum where commercial, administrative and religious activity would have taken place and, furthest away, a theatre.

The theatre is remarkably preserved, with tiers of seating still present if eroded by time, and it is possible to walk amongst the stones and sit, as so many so long ago once did, and imagine the performances that would have taken place.  It is hard not to imagine the ghost of voices in your ears so direct is the connection to the past here.  It is an experience well worth the entrance fee.

For the previous post from my Mallorcan trip, click here.  Next up a visit to Arta and the 3,000 year old settlement on its doorstep.

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Steps, side streets and sunshine – exploring Pollenca, Mallorca

Pollenca, not to be confused with the nearby seaside resort of Port de Pollenca, has lain in a steep sided valley in the foothills of Mallorca’s Tramuntana mountains for centuries, with occupation at least as long ago as the Roman presence on the island.  You can feel the age of the place in its narrow and winding streets, which wrap themselves tightly around the rising slopes, sharp corners and switchbacks occasionally opening, unannounced, in to large open spaces.  It is a labyrinthine town best explored on foot.

At the heart of Pollenca is the Placa Major, or main square.  Here you can pull up a seat outside one of the cafes to revive yourself pre or post wanderings or seek shade from the sun inside the tranquil grandeur of the imposing 13th century church of Our Lady of the Angels, with connections to the Knights Templar.

On Sundays one of the larger, and more authentic, markets on the island is held in the square, with stalls spilling out in to the streets beyond.  Arrive early to beat the crowds and the heat.  If your visit doesn’t fall on market day Pollenca offers an eclectic range of boutiques offering art, crafts and tasteful souvenirs and a free to enter art gallery, Museu De Pollenca, housed in a former convent.  For those content simply to explore the streets, there are plenty of hidden treasures to uncover.

Pollenca is perhaps most famous for Calle de Calvari or the Calvari steps, a street of 365 stone steps which climbs steeply from the town centre to a small chapel at the summit.  The views back down the steps across the rooftops to the mountain on the other side of the valley are certainly worth the effort.  At the top make sure to follow the path away from the chapel to a view point over the plains towards the sea before heading back down the hill for a well earned refreshment.

For the previous post from Mallorca, click here.  Next up the treasures of Alcudia.

 

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The Power of Peace and Quiet – Rural Mallorca

For most of us, the number of days available each year to travel are limited.  Even if we are lucky enough to have a generous holiday allowance some of this will, inevitably, be needed for life admin, for appointments, for DIY, for family events.  And, of course, there are cost implications.  We are left with a few short weeks to spend out there in the world and this limitation can add pressure.  What if we make the wrong choice: is the airline too budget, will they lose my bags, extort money for being one kilo over the weight allowance, deem my hand luggage too big for the overhead lockers, seat me away from my companions, land miles from my destination; was my selection of accommodation correct, is it too central, is it too far away, are the 30 negative Trip Advisor reviews out of 670 positive the ones I should really trust (if you look hard enough you will find a bad review for anything, and I look hard); will the weather be right; will the hire car company accuse me of scratches I didn’t cause; these are just some of the thoughts that clamour for attention whenever my finger hovers over the ‘book now’ button.

I am a natural worrier and worse, prone to perfectionism.  These traits mean that I have a tendency to over plan my travel, to over populate the itinerary.  A three week trip to Eastern Canada and New England resulted in 4,000 km of driving through two provinces and four states in order to tick off the ‘to do list’.  During a week’s camping in Iceland we did not stay more than one night in the same place.  I once calculated the number of holiday days left in my working life and the number was unpleasantly small.  I fear running out of time to see and do all that I want to; repeat visits must take their place at the bottom of the list.

What, you may ask, has all this to do with the title of this post?  Well sometimes we have to take a metaphorical grip of ourselves.  Sometimes the last thing we think we want is exactly what we need.  And so, for the first time in a long time, I took the decision to plan an unplanned holiday; a week with no schedule, no list of sights to see.

To minimise any guilt at my inactivity the chosen destination was one we had been to before, the quiet north west of Mallorca, far away from the high rise beach resorts, the nightclubs and cooked breakfasts.  We booked a finca on the edge of the Tramuntana mountains, hidden down twisting farm tracks amidst wild flowers and fruit trees.  We threw back the shutters and let the quiet in.

The restorative power of peace is not to be underestimated.  It certainly helps if that peace is found somewhere so utterly beautiful.  We spent hours simply sitting, absorbing, feeling the magic of the soft sunlight, the clean air and the calm working through us.  Weight lifted, breathing deepened, sleep lengthened, energy replenished.  Sometimes being still is the best kind of travel.

For those interested in learning what Mallorca has to offer beyond the immediate environs of one small patch of farmland, there will be more to follow. 

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Understanding Amsterdam – a visit to the Rijksmuseum

Amsterdam.  It is hard to distil any city to its essence, more so when it has more than one story to tell, when there is more than one truth.  To some, Amsterdam is a twee tourist destination of clogs and tulips and windmills.  To some a beacon of liberal tolerance.  To some an enabler of hedonistic darkness.  To some a crucible of creative expression.  To some a living monument to the spoils of colonialism and exploitation.

There is a place where you can go to attempt to untangle the threads, to unwind the skein and trail it through the labyrinthine alleyways, across bridges and along canals, to reveal the beating heart of the Minotaur.  The Rijksmuseum, found at Museumstraat 1, and open daily from 9 until 5, has told Amsterdam’s story for more than 125 years.  Closed in 2004 for major renovations, it reopened in April 2013 to expectations that had been building for almost a decade.  A lot to live up to but the Rijksmuseum delivers.

Entry is via an central archway, a tunnel cut directly through the building, and then down, out of the shadows and gloom in to a light filled atrium.  From here, pick a doorway and plunge in to the maze of exhibition spaces and galleries beyond.

The collection is extensive and includes artefacts from all periods of Dutch history, from home and overseas.

It is eclectic and well curated with good lighting, intelligent grouping, enough information to digest without detracting from the presence of the pieces, the beauty, variety and richness of which can speak for themselves.  Seeing these diverse objects, all equally treasured, all housed under one roof, all connected to the story of the Netherlands, is a reminder that history is complex and that a whole is formed of many parts, not all of which are positive.  Each make their mark and none can be ignored.  Sometimes, the Rijksmuseum tells us, it is enough to simply stand back and absorb.  We should not always be so desperate to define.

 

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