Delicious Danish

DSC_0054 The Little Mermaid

Notice the backdrop of the photo of the Little Mermaid? Ugly industrial buildings and cranes! I guess tourism was not originally in the mind of Carl Jacobsen, the founder of Carlsberg, who commissioned the creation of the statue. This is probably the main tourist attraction associated with Copenhagen, and especially because it’s free, it’s always surrounded by tour groups, even though there’s not much to it.

DSC_0016 Nyhavn Harbour

To be honest, i was not quite impressed with many of the other tourist attractions of Copenhagen as well, be it Nyhavn Harbour or Tivoli Garden. Pity i didn’t get to go into the Rosenborg Castle, which looks interesting. It closes at 4pm in spring, too early!

Parquet Parquet flooring in Copenhagen Airport

I was amazed, though, by the sight of parquet flooring in Copenhagen airport – a sure sign of how wealthy Denmark is. You could spend a good hour or two shopping in the extensive transit area.

DSC_0153 Strawberry tart and Danish

The best part of Copenhagen/Denmark, to me, are the pastries! My wild hypothesis on why a Danish is called so: it’s so good that Danes are given the tribute. Incidentally, the best restaurant in the world is in Copenhagen. Obviously, Danes know a thing or two about cooking!

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A summon being served by a horse-riding policewoman

By the way, IMHO, Tuborg tastes better than Carlsberg.

High Tech Sweden

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The photo above shows a paging device handed out to customers who ordered food at an eatery in the Skansen Museum, Stockholm. Customers can return to their tables after placing their order, and when the food is ready, the paging device starts blinking! The underlying technology isn’t really out-of-the-world, but the idea is truly novel.

DSC_0172 Blinking = Food is ready!

It’s amazing how far Swedes go towards automation. In the supermarket, the person manning the check-out simply feeds customers’ notes and/or coins into the cash register, which does automated recognition and spews out the correct change in both notes and coins! A search on the internet reveals that since the beginning of 2010, Sweden has put in place a legislation that enforces the use of certified cash register with the aim of eradicating tax evasion. The tax rate (the equivalent of VAT or GST in Singapore) stands at a whopping 25% if you’re wondering.

change-maching-at-supermarket Supermarket change machine

Prices of goods are significantly higher in Scandinavia as compared to the rest of Europe (with the exception of Switzerland). How do they manage with such high cost of living (while working fewer hours – shops are mostly closed by 7pm)? Not coincidentally, Scandinavia has always been rated to have among the highest standard of living (plus being the happiest and healthiest countries). It’s all connected. So here’s what i think: it all begins with what you eat.

Scandinavians eat well (reads healthy). I can testify to this from what i sampled. It may cost more, but you get high quality and fresh produce. If you eat well, you think and do well, and there is a snowball effect that finally brings about the well-being of the entire nation. Contrast this with the general trend in Asia that focuses on lowering cost instead of the quality and nutrition of food. At some point in time there will be a backlash (think of the tainted milk and fake egg incidents).

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Brunch in Copenhagen consisting of an assortment of fruits, ham, bacon, sausage, cheese, yoghurt with cereals, pancake and bread with butter

Time to rethink your diet?

The British Identity

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Punks sun-bathing in front of a London pub

On my recent visit to the UK, the first impression i got of the Britons (or maybe the English – more on this later) was this: they’re quite efficient at what they do. I was on a flight from Paris to London, and as far as i can remember, it was the quickest cabin-door-closed-to-take-off i have ever experienced. This is the down-to-earth, disciplined and no-nonsense side of the Britons that i so admire.

Upon landing in London, on the bus that took us into the city centre, an old-folk was trying to communicate with the bus driver, speaking in his native language (presumably Italian). The bus-driver shouted back in an unfriendly tone, “Speak English! I don’t understand what you’re saying”. I guess this was the serious and maybe a little snobbish side of the Britons that is perhaps not so pleasant.

The British Identity is an interesting subject matter to consider. For a start, most people outside of the UK do not know that English is not the same as British. It took hundreds of years for Wales, England, Scotland and Northern Ireland to be joined together to become the United Kingdom as we know it today, yet today they remain as fragmented as ever. I had the privilege of sitting in on a session in the Parliament of Scotland (yes, amazingly they allow visitors in!), and the speaker was advocating more power for the local authorities and criticizing the central government.

DSC_0090 The Parliament of Scotland

It is no mean feat for the British Empire to have been the largest empire in history. Today, however, not only has the empire come to an end, UK is heavily in debt. On top of that, UK faces an identity crisis, which could be getting more confused as the immigrant population grows. What’s interesting though, is that probably a substantial proportion of the immigrants try harder to assert their identity as being English than the English themselves.

It’s fascinating to visit the UK just to experience ‘Englishness’. And don’t miss out on the chance to catch Broadway Shows – they’re lovely!

DSC_0182 Phantom of the Opera stage

Romantic France

There is something about the French. I don’t know why, but even the choice of the font for their road signs, commonly with italics applied, conveys a sense of romanticism to me.

Image26Typical Road Sign in France

I’m reminded of a scene i saw in Paris, where a middle-aged couple were kissing passionately in front of the metro entrance, seemingly unwilling to part. It’s not just the younger ones who are affectionate. Romance is in their blood!

Come to think of it, even the Châteaux in France appear to be more “feminine” than “masculine”, having more curves than angles. They exuberate a sense of charm not found elsewhere. Check it out:

DSC_0001Chambord

DSC_0122Chenonceau

The word “romance” itself is believed to have a French origin!

Slumberland Spain

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The photo above shows the opening hours of a supermarket in Barcelona. It reads: Monday to Thursday 9:00 – 13:45 17:00 – 20:00, Friday 9:00 – 20:30, Saturday 9:00 – 14:00 17:00 – 20:30. As you can see, the siesta culture is very much alive in Spain. Even if the supermarket stayed open throughout the afternoon, they would probably see no customer.

Meal times in Spain are a little later than those of their European counterparts. They would have lunch at 1 – 4pm and dinner at 8pm – 12am. The sun is the excuse for this to happen. Together with Portugal, they are countries on the westernmost part of the Europe continent, yet falling into the same time zone, so the sun seems to down a little later.

DSC_0233 Barcelona at 9pm

The late meal times actually work out well for travellers who want to maximize their use of the daytime to do sight seeing. Interestingly, there is also no problem finding food in Germany late at night, as they also stay open close to midnight, but starting at regular meal hours (around 12pm for lunch and 630pm for dinner). This leads to the conclusion: Spanish people likely work fewer hours than German people.

Ok, that is a somewhat sweeping statement which is probably unfair, but there is probably some truth to it. It is no secret that Spain is suspected to be in danger of needing a bailout, and one wonders how this can be. Spain has vast arable land suitable for agriculture, abundant natural resources (with the exception of oil and gas) and pretty good infrastructure (with an advanced network of 300 km/h AVE trains). They are also known for development of renewable energy technologies (it was the first time i have ever seen a photovoltaic power plant and that Spain was among the first to deploy such plants). With such advantageous factors, it is hard to understand how the Spanish economy could be in such dire state. The only explanation i can think of is the lack of productivity. With the world economy thoroughly connected through currency exchange, any economy that fails to be competitive in productivity falls behind in the race.

Spain probably needs a “cultural revolution” to get going.. put in more hours of work and make do with less luxury. Actually, a relaxed lifestyle isn’t a bad thing. If only the world would slow down a little, then we will probably all do just fine together..

Safety Tips for Europe

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As mentioned in my previous posting, i had the misfortune of a second encounter with pick-pocketing, in Barcelona. However, “thanks” to the previous encounter, i learnt how not to fall prey this time.

It happened in the metro station again. We went past a lift and back-tracked to take it. Immediately three men who were standing near the lift followed us into it. They were not going to take the lift, and yet they did the moment we turned around to take it. Suspicious. Now this was a see-through lift with 24 hours surveillance video recording, and even this was not good enough to deter pick-pockets! They pretended to want to help with our luggage, putting their hands on the it but not actually exerting any force. Strange looking gestures. If you think about it, ordinary folks wouldn’t be bothered about your luggage unless you are really in need of help.

One of them continued with the gesture of bending down, towards me, even though there was no need to move the luggage. He had a jacket on his hand. This was literally meant for covering up his act. Immediately, I stuck my hands into my pockets and pressed down against my phone and wallet. This stopped him from what he was intending to do. The lift door opens, and i smiled while gesturing to them to go out first. A close shave indeed.

DSC_0137 The lift where it happened

In the Barcelona metro stations, they broadcast announcements in English to warn people of pick-pocket distraction tactics. They also have security personnels accompanied by dogs (as shown in the top most photo). The effort is certainly to be lauded. But the fact that there are still pick-pockets preying on tourists is regrettable. It points to a bigger problem.

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It seems quite a common hearsay that there is a very high likelihood of getting pick-pocketed or robbed while on holiday in Europe. My take on this – I wouldn’t be too worried. Europe is really quite safe. Policemen and surveillance are deployed where they are needed, and they really don’t take security lightly. On the part of the traveller, these are the safety tips i would observe to avert trouble:

  • Don’t carry your wallet in your pocket. If you have to, use a slim wallet and store only what you need for the day – probably just one credit card and some cash.
  • When you are moving your luggage, you are very VULNERABLE, since your attention will be on your luggage and you can be distracted easily. In such a situation, you definitely must not carry any valuables in your pocket. Put them in your luggage or haversack.
  • Don’t respond to anyone who tries to talk to you on the street. It is not normal for common folks to do this, unless you’re in Switzerland, where you may actually meet some genuinely friendly people who are not in need of money. In Italy, watch out for those who try to tie a bangle on your hand saying it’s free and then ask for money later.

Be alert but don’t worry too much.

The Alhambra

Alhambra

The Alhambra was one of the main highlights of my trip and it was so awesome that i had to dedicate an entry to it. It consists of palaces and gardens, perched on two hills, so magnificently put together that it is visually stunning from any angle. It was granted the well-deserved UNESCO World Heritage Site recognition way back in 1984.

Since the Wikipedia entry gives you all the details you might be interested to know about the Alhambra, I will just let pictures do the talking.

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Here are some tips for visiting the Alhambra:

  • Book your tickets in advance online (search for Alhambra). Except maybe in winter, the tickets are likely to be sold out everyday and cannot be purchased on the spot.
  • Choose the timing to visit the Nasrid Palace carefully and make sure you get there on time, or you may be denied entry.  This is the first thing you should see in the Alhambra, and this is also why, on your booking confirmation slip, you are advised to collect your tickets one hour before your selected time slot.
  • Remember to bring the credit card you have used for purchasing the ticket as you will need it for ticket collection. The ticket collection machines are near the ticket sales booth.
  • There are two ways to get to the Alhambra on foot (there is also a bus). The Alhambra map and information brochure advices you to go up from the south side, whereby halfway enroute, there is a “shortcut” to get to the Nasrid Palace first. This will save you a lot of walking to and fro. Since i did not take this route, i cannot confirm whether they have the ticket collection machines at this entrance, but i reckon they should have it if it is an official entrance. See below for map and direction on how to find this route, the one which is pleasantly lined with trees.

Alhambra Map

From the main road, Calle Reyes Católicos, look out for a pink coloured sign that directs you to the Alhambra into Cuesta de Gomérez. Here’s what it looks like:

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Walk further up the slope and you’ll see this gate. Proceed past the gate and up the left side.

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If you’re going to visit the Alhambra soon, have a great time! I’m sure you will. By the way, the city of Granada itself, with its many parks and fountains seemingly inspired by the Alhambra, also makes for an enjoyable visit.

Don’t go to Madrid

Bruise

Not unexpectedly, I’m back from my Grand Tour of Europe and i haven’t had time to blog during the trip, so it looks like i will have to do so retrospectively. Anyway, thanks for tuning in!

The photo shows bruises sustained on my elbow and knees when tackling youngsters who robbed me on day 3 of my trip. Yes, unfortunately, the first thing of interest i can write about on my Grand Tour of Europe is my experience of being pick-pocketed (technically speaking being robbed), in Madrid.

Upon leaving the hotel after checking out early in the morning (8am is considered early in Spain), two youngsters followed us, one of them blasting away at me in his native Spanish language which i couldn’t understand of course. The entrance to the metro was only 30m away, and they trailed us down into the metro entrance. I could guess he was asking for money, and i ignored him. Then he started kicking my legs, and moments later i suddenly thought that he could be aiming for my wallet, and true enough, my wallet was gone! i went after him, and he passed the wallet to his accomplice. I tackled his accomplice down to the floor, but couldn’t prevent him from passing the wallet back to him. My wife was in a state of panic and in her effort to help, she held on to my legs instead of the accomplice’s. So they managed to get away while i was immobilized (duh!). Anyway, they were “kind enough” to return my wallet. He took the cash and stuffed 10 Euros back into the wallet. Credit cards and driving license intact, phew! One passer by who came by a minute later stopped to help, and he advised us to report the incident to the police and he said “I’m sorry”, the only English phrase he could manage.

All in all, not a big loss (<S$300), no major injury, no credit card or other important documents lost. We were able to continue on with our journey, albeit feeling affected by the incident for a good few hours. This was already the best outcome possible, for which i’m thankful, and this was actually a good “lesson” to help me prevent the next pick-pocketing incident from happening while in Barcelona (yes, a second time within just 3 days! More on this in a follow-up posting on how to be safe while in Europe).

This is the first time, after 5 times of traveling around Europe, including Eastern Europe, that i have ever been pick-pocketed. And it happened twice within the same country – Spain, done by locals who make a profession out of pick-pocketing tourists! While this is not a problem exclusive to Spain, the fact that it happened to me twice within 3 days shows that the situation is particularly bad there.

On closing, i’m saying “don’t go to Madrid” not just because of the unwelcome event, but more so because there’s really nothing much to see there. If you’re into art, you can go to the Prado museum (where you can see the magnificent “Las Meninas“ by Velãzquez). Plaza Mayor, which is supposed to be the main plaza in Madrid, is one of the worst i’ve seen in all of Europe. Don’t go to Madrid.

Grand Tour of Europe

Europe Grand Tour

Yup, that’s the itinerary of my upcoming grand tour of Europe, lasting one month starting from 12 May. During this time, i won’t be able to update the daily SOR page daily, apologies for that. I’ll be posting about anything interesting i come across during the trip, so stay tuned.

By the way, check out travellerspoint if you’re interested in plotting your own itinerary map.