A Place Called Kangerlussuaq

In the valleys of the ice were clear blue lakes. Not the turquoise blue of a Greek island, but a truly clear blue, lighting up its surroundings. Melting water was creating rivers and water falls as well as holes deep into the ice sheet.

We have left behind the wonders of the Disko Bay and the Ice Fjord. On the small Dash 8, we’ve flown south to Kangerlussuaq, meaning Big Fjord. As so many other names in Greenland, the name Kangerlussuaq is used many places around the country. But this must be the best known. Kangerlussuaq in the Qeqqata municipality of Western Greenland is an old American Airbase, which today functions as Greenland’s international airport. This is where the flight from Copenhagen lands twice a day.

While it is possible to travel directly to Nuuk or Ilulissat from Reykjavik in Iceland, most people will find their way to Greenland on the Copenhagen flight to Kangerlussuaq. It is the entrance way to this beautiful country.

But Kangerlussuaq is more than that. The fjord from which the small community and airbase received its name is 190 kilometres long and at its widest 8 kilometres. With these measures it is the second largest fjord in Greenland, and the fifth largest in the world. The fjord waters come from Russell Glacier and the Ice Cap through Qinnguata Kuusua, in English known as Watson River, and spills into the Davis Strait.

Following the fjord and river inland, Greenland’s longest road leads directly to the Ice Cap. At Point 660, the very end of the 37 kilometres long road, only a small hill separates you from the Ice Cap. From here the Ice Cap extends 600 kilometres to the East. For the foolhardy, it would take approximately 25 days to cross the Ice Cap from here to the small settlement of Isortoq on the East Coast.

I have no desire to attempt a crossing.

What I did want however was to get an idea of this massive ice sheet, and we had therefore planned for an excursion to the Ice Cap, getting a small taste of walking on it.

Kangerlussuaq facts

It takes two hours to drive the 25 kilometres to the Ice Cap and point 660. Included in this was several stops and a lunch overlooking Reindeer Glacier, which is a small branch off from Russell Glacier.

This is the land of reindeer and musk oxen and on our way to the Ice Cap, we were lucky to catch sight of a young female reindeer walking close to our truck. Prior to 1941, when the area was used for an American Airbase, the original Inuit population never actually settled down here. but there are excavations showing that the area was used as hunting grounds by Inuits.

It was because of the stable climate that the Americans chose this place as a fuel stop on the way to Europe during WW2. The region is under an inland climate with 300 days of clear weather a year. It is an arctic desert, however difficult it is to imagine this.

The glacier grinds tonnes of rocks into silt, which is just as fine cut as the sand of Sahara. With the dry climate and the massive prevalence of silt, not much can grow in this area.

This however did not stop s couple of extreme entrepreneurs of the 1980’s to build a golf course. It is a desolate and sandy stretch of land as we drive by. The most northern 18 hole golf course in the world. A proof that the 80’s was an entrepreneurial time with lots of optimism and crazy ideas. I was later told that the golf club did a count a few years back of their membership archive and found that they had two active members. I guess that means no waiting around.

Apart from the golf course, the Americans used Kangerlussuaq as a radar station during the Cold War and made scientific investigations of northern light from 1971 to 1987 though the results were far from impressive.

In 1992, after the end of the Cold War, the US sold Kangerlussuaq to Denmark for one dollar. This agreement however stipulated that the airport should for all time have 4 months worth of fuel ready as well as allow the scientific research of the climate by US scientists.

By selling the area to Denmark, the US also left behind a testing ground for explosives. It was swiped once during the initial take over, but due to lack of funds the place was never swiped for unexploded bombs a second time around.

After the discovery by a school class of unexploded grenades in the late 90’s, the area has been off limits, closed as a mine field. It is very odd to drive by signs warning against a mine field in a country such as Greenland. But then there are also signs warning you from flight engine jet blasts and quick sand.

Walking on the Ice Cap

When we reached Point 660, we were given steel frames for our hiking shoes, so that we walked on steel picks. We each carried a walking stick and thus were ready to conquer the vast inland ice.

It was an odd experience to walk in a landscape only made from snow and ice. Everywhere you looked were hills and valleys cut from the melting water and created by the pressure between the ice further inland and the bedrock of the coastal region. We were told that travelling further inland, the ice cape would even out, but here it seemed a crumpled fabric.

In the valleys of the ice were clear blue lakes. Not the turquoise blue of a Greek island, but a truly clear blue, lighting up its surroundings. Melting water was creating rivers and water falls as well as holes deep into the ice sheet.

The ice is a mysterious and dangerous place, and one wrong foot could have dire consequences. Some off these holes made from melting water had been measured to more than 200 meters in depth. At one point we all had to jump over a narrow crevice of which I could not see the bottom.

But apart from a few scrapes from falling with the steel picks, we returned to Point 660 in safe condition. Having walked on the ice cap for four hours, it is even harder for me to understand why anyone would attempt to cross it.

Roklubben

We had booked a table for the weekly Greenlandic buffet at Restaurant Roklubben a little outside Kangerlussuaq. It was a weird experience. A shuttle bus picked us and most of the towns tourists up at 19.00 to drive us the five kilometres to Lake Fergusson. The old bus was darkened by steams of mosquitoes, making it almost impossible to see out the window. I truly felt for the guy on the seat in front of us, who had only shown up in a t-shirt and bare arms. We were covered from head to toe in clothes and mosquito nets, but still managed to get eaten alive. Thankfully we gave as good as we got.

The buffet was supposed to be a culinary experience, but felt more like the buffet at a chain café in provincial Denmark. It wasn’t particularly bad, but it was not particularly good either, and it seemed as if this was what they had dished up with every Saturday for the last 30 years.

I did buy a grouse schnapps made from the food stored in the gizzard of a grouse. It is quite a Greenlandic way to make schnapps, and I look forward to tasting it this Christmas.

Day trip to Russell Glacier

On our final day in Greenland, we’d booked a day trip to Russell Glacier. It was only us the guide and a middle-aged Danish woman, who had been to Greenland several times before.

It was a perfect way to say goodbye. The temperature was reaching 17 °C and the sun was shining. We were going off road to the front of the glacier. The van drove up and down steep hills covered in silt, and at some times it felt as if we would tip over. But it was fun and definitely worth it to almost fall off our seats.

Russell Glacier is approximate 700 meters wide and move 25 meters a year. Al Gore filmed parts of An Inconvenient Truth at Russell Glacier in 2006 and returned last year to show the effect of climate change through the massive changes to the glacier, which had shrunk much further back in the 10 years since.

Whatever the size was before, the glacier is beautiful. It does not have the same romantic appearance as Eqi Glacier, but it feels so much closer.

We spent our last day drinking coffee and eating biscuits at one of the true wonders of this world, a glacier in all its glory.

The only thing we seemed to be missing after two weeks in Greenland was a couple of musk oxen. Having tasted them and having seen so many other of Greenland’s wild life, it was a bit disappointing to not get a glimpse of the musk oxen, we knew were usually grassing across from the glacier.

But as it happens, on our way back our guide stopped the van to point out three dots moving around in the far distance.

And there they were, a family of three. Two grown musk oxen and one calf, which should actually be a kid since musk oxen are related to goats, but who cares. Here they were. We could family tick off the last remaining thing on our list of things to experience in Greenland, and with a few grainy pictures, it was documented.

The rest of the day, we walked around Kangerlussuaq and waited in the airport canteen for our midnight flight. We were going home from one of the most amazing travels of my life, in a world so different from anything we ever saw before. I would not be surprised, if we found ourselves on the Copenhagen flight to Greenland again some day.

Zofka

 

Ilimanaq and the Humpback Whales

While in Denmark people hunt for trophies, in Greenland they hunt for food and because it is such an integrated part of their culture to live off the wildlife.

Not long before we arrived to Ilulissat one of the massive ice bergs blocking the entrance to the Ice Fjord and the Jakobshavn Glacier had come loose from its position leaving an opening for tonnes and tonnes of ice to pass from the Ice Fjord and into Disko Bay before another massive ice berg would block the entrance again.

The Ice Fjord

Jakobshavn Glacier, or Sermeq Kujalleq as it is called in Greenlandic, is one of the most productive glaciers in the world. It moves around 25 meters a day sending 20 billion tonnes of ice into the Ice Fjord each year, which is 70 to 86 million tonnes a day. In other measurements, it is 35 km3 each year. It is 680 meters high and 7.5 kilometres wide. It opens up and deposits its ice in the Ice Fjord just south of Ilulissat.

The Ice Fjord runs 40 kilometres West from the ice sheet to Disko Bay transporting the massive amounts of ice. But since the water at the entrance to the fjord are shallower than further in many of the large ice bergs, which can reach a kilometre in height get stuck in the 300 meter deep entrance over the summer and sometimes for years. Here they block the fjord until they are broken into pieces are pressured out from the forces of continuous ice from the glacier.

Scientists are certain that it was an ice berg from this glacier which caused the 1912 sinking of Titanic. Later data has shown that some of the largest ice bergs can reach as far down as 40-45 degrees north, which is level with New York.

Day trip to Ilimanaq

Because one of the ice bergs had wrestled free from the the shallow waters, Disko Bay was full of ice around the entrance to the Ice Fjord. Some said they had never seen so much ice in the bay before.

This however also had the effect that any trips to Ilimanaq were cancelled since it was impossible for many to sail through the ice. Ilulissat lies to the north of the fjord, while Ilimanaq lies to the south, why one has to sail past the fjord entrance into Disko Bay.

I had been slightly nervous that our trip to Ilimanaq would also be cancelled, but after a week the ice was slowly spreading out allowing for boats to sail to Ilimanaq without having to make a large detour around the ice.

We had seen Qeqertarsuaq and Oqaatsut, and I was looking forward to comparing them to Ilimanaq.

Ilimanaq is slightly bigger than Oqaatsut, and is in Danish known as Claushavn. It lies 15 kilometres south of Ilulissat, but where the people of Oqaatsut can travel by land, the Ice Fjord makes it impossible to get from Ilimanaq to Ilulissat unless by boat. Winters here are therefore very isolated and the transport of goods to the settlement happens by boat in the summer months. During the winter, it is not possible to reach the settlement or with helicopter operated by government contract by Air Greenland.

As with Oqaatsut, the settlement originates from Dutch whalers who were active in the region from 1719 to 1732. The settlement itself is from 1741 and founded by Danes though named after the Dutch whaler Klacs Pieterz Torp.

What makes Ilimanaq interesting in Danish eyes is the missionary work of Poul Egede, one of the first Europeans to grow up in Greenland. Though born in Norway, he moved with his family to Greenland at the age of two, and therefore spoke Greenlandic from childhood. His mission as a Lutheran missionary in Greenland was to find and convert the lost colony of Norsemen. Greenland had been settled by Vikings at the turn of the first millennium, and at a time when Scandinavia was slowly converting to Christianity. Christianity had also reached the Norse settlers in Greenland, but this had been long before the Danish Reformation and break with the Catholic Church. It was therefore paramount to find the colony which it was believed still existed in Greenland and convert them to Lutheran Protestantism.

The colony had long since perished, but while searching for it, Poul Egede and others sent by the Danish king spent their time converting the Inuit population. And for Poul Egede it was a success as he had the advantage of speaking the language and knowing the culture.

In 2014, Realdania beautifully renovated two old colonial houses in Ilimanaq – the old shop and Poul Egedes house.

Lunch in the school teacher’s home

Ilimanaq sees a great many tourists in comparison to other settlements due to its close proximity to Ilulissat as well as its colonial history. Unlike in Oqaatsut, we were far from alone on our visit. But the group we were with was small, and our guide – the owner of Arctic Friend, was well acquainted with the locals of Ilimanaq. Thus, he had arranged for us a local lunch.

There are eight students in the school in Ilimanaq, all of them different ages and all of them requiring to be taught in at different levels within a wide spectre of topics. One school teacher provides the primary education for the children in these first years before they are sent off to the larger cities to continue their secondary high school years.

14 % of Greenlandic children leave their home at around 14 years old, because the settlements where they grew up are not big enough to support more than 7 years of education. Not only that, but these children who have grown up in a settlement of maybe around 50 people, suddenly have to become accustomed to being one amongst 1500 or so school children in a large city such as Nuuk, Sisimiut or Aassiaat.

We got the chance to visit the local school teacher in Ilimanaq, and hear about the life and school in the settlement. She treated us to a local curry fish soup and a Danish layer cake.

We were not the first visitors she and her husband invited into their home. There were a thank you note hanging on the wall from the Danish Prime Minister, thanking the family for inviting him and the EU President Donald Tusk to their home.

Moreover, our guide seemed to be intimately acquainted with the family and could tell us that the husband had received the price for catching most halibut in Greenland during the summer 2016. Outside the house were a pile of what others would consider hunting trophies, but what is merely everyday in Ilimanaq. Whale bards, musk oxen horns, reindeer antlers and much more from the husband’s hunting.

While in Denmark people hunt for trophies, in Greenland they hunt for food and because it is such an integrated part of their culture to live off the wildlife.

The visit gave this day an added feeling of being not merely a tourist, but a guest in this beautiful country and welcomed in the midst of the locals.

The journey of the humpback whales

But we had not merely come to see Ilimanaq. The boat trip south was also shadowing as a whale safari. We had already seen whales up close on our first day, but since then our luck had not been great. Therefore, it was quite surprising how many humpback whales we saw swimming north past Ilimanaq. Small families of whales were slowly making their way up the coast.

We were fortunate to have the company of a Spanish guy, who was an enthusiastic drone pilot.

While I am not very keen on the idea of drones due to their noise and the spying factor, I must admit that it was pretty cool to have the drone spy on the whales. While we only saw a fin or a tail fin, the drone caught the whales playing and feeding.

The below video was made by Joaquin Romera, who was so kind to let me post it here.

Ilimanaq was definitely worth a visit, and the fact that we came with a small and well integrated tour agency with close contacts in the area made the day even more special.

Zofka

Sailing to Oqaatsut – Walking to Ilulissat

They articulated and made understood by their translation app that as Chinese they had sensitive tummies.

I wont even attempt to pronounce the name of this small bygd (Danish name for small Greenlandic village) north of Ilulissat. rust me I have tried with several people looking at me confused. Oqaatsut is within an easy half an hour by boat if the icebergs are not in the way and two hours in the winter by dog sled. Here live 45 people in a small cluster of colourful houses.

History of Oqaatsut

The settlement was as Godhavn originally a whaling station of Dutch origin. The Dutch called it Rodebay, meaning Red Bay and named from how red the waters of the bay became during whaling season. Even today most whales in the Ilulissat area are drawn to land at Oqaatsut due to the natural harbour of the bay.

The place was used as far back as the 17th century by Dutch whalers at which time it got its name Rode Bay, but it was only in the 18th century that it became settled by both Inuit settlers and Dutch whalers. However, in 1876 the Danish King asserted the Danish claim to Greenland, monopolising Greenlandic trade, and in 1877, Oqaatsut was made into a Danish colonial outpost operated by the Royal Greenland Trading Department. Denmark held the monopoly on Greenlandic trade up until 1950 and some might claim that we still de facto are monopolising the Greenlandic import and export of goods.

The slow pace of life in a Greenlandic settlement

My reason for visiting and staying the night in Oqaatsut has been twofold. Partly, I wanted for us to have a chance to relax a bit and simply enjoy the quiet of this vast island. In addition, I wanted a chance to experience the life in a small and remote settlement in Greenland. In Greenlandic terms, Oqaatsut is relatively close to civilization, but for two city dwellers like us it seems hard to imagine something further away from everything than this place.

The settlement is situated 22 kilometres north of Ilulissat, and our plan is to walk back on what should be an easy hike. I’ve been told that it should take us slightly more than three times the time of a dog sled – around 7 hours. But the walk is not until tomorrow morning. For now, we simply have to enjoy the magical peace of this place.

Watch out for the Chinese invasion

While to us this small settlement seems far away it must have felt like a different planet for the two middle-aged Chinese gentlemen sailing with us to the settlement this morning. Knowing no English it seemed a daring adventure for them to travel to Oqaatsut without a Chinese speaking guide.

Our captain on the small open boat admitted that he probably had to keep an eye out for them since they seemed constantly confused and out of place. Communication was difficult, but was helped along by a translation app with which the Chinese could make themselves understood – though barely. The sentences that came out in English were to say the least ridiculously hilarious, but it worked to an extend.

The Royal Greenland Trading Department left behind four buildings, which in the days of the Danish monopoly were storage, cooperage, the settlement’s old shop and the old H8 warehouse. Today, the latter houses Restaurant H8 and upon our arrival I’d arranged with the friendly hostess Charlotte for us to eat there both for lunch and dinner.

We dropped by at 12.30 for our lunch, but soon realised that Charlotte as well as her husband Julien were busy attempting to understand the requirements of the two Chinese gentlemen from the boat.

After a long conversation through the computerised voice of the Chinese translation app, it became apparent that the two Chinese gentlemen were convinced that they could only eat food that was cooked, or as they demonstrated by the way of a candle – boiled. They articulated and made understood by the app that as Chinese they had sensitive tummies. It was hard to keep my face straight with the weird translations and ridiculousness of the situation. I might be insensitive, but it was impossible for me or Charlotte to explain to them that the traditionally smoked and dried fish which was on the menu was quite safe even for sensitive tummies.

To be fair, I would be extremely cautious with food in China considering the food scandals that have come forth in recent years, but the safety regulations of Greenlandic food are higher than in most places.  In the end the Chinese handed over their translation app which politely requested if it was possible to cancel their order. I felt sorry for them, as I enjoyed my own massive Atlantic Salmon Sandwich on home-made ciabatta – and even more so when we caught up with them at the hotel enjoying two pieces of dried toast and a slice of that American burger cheese which comes in plastic wrapping. Poor guys, but at least they got fed.

We spent the day relaxing, and for my boyfriend to get past his illness. While he enjoyed the view from our hotel room, I went on a walk up the hill north of the settlement from where I was blown away by a beautiful view of Disko Bay and the Paakitsup Nunaa highland to the east. Oqaatsut is most favourably located in this eastern corner of Disko Bay.

Walking, walking and then walking some more…

We set out from Oqaatsut later than planned and the clock was near 10 AM as we reached the first orange dot indicating the route we were to follow. I wanted to set a good pace, worrying that 20 kilometres might prove too much for us. But the landscape begged us to slow down and enjoy the wide horizon.

The Green line: Oqaatsut - Ilulissat Walking Route
The Green line: Oqaatsut – Ilulissat Walking Route

For the first stretch we followed the coastline south with the Disko Bay to our right. It was a beautiful vista and I felt as if we were alone travelling through the landscape from the ice ages. It soon occurred to me that that was exactly what we were doing. Greenland succumbs under an ice age and the fauna is Arctic and makes inhabitation difficult. Thus, we were alone in a remote plain with views of massive ice bergs close to an Ice Cap taking up 7% of the world’s fresh water reserve. Apart from my outfit and camera, I could almost imagine myself as Ayla travelling across the tundra of the Euroasian continent at the time of the last big ice age.

As we moved inland and to the east we found the small peninsula closing off the Kangerluarsuk – in English Broad Bay. Here we walked down to the waters edge to look for capelins, known as ammasat in Greenlandic. The shoreline was dotted with fishing shacks and as we moved east along the shores of Broad Bay, we saw locals fishing in the fresh waters of the bay.

It was already late when we reached the small pass between BroadBay and an inner lake feeding into the bay. It became the first of many crossings on rocks over water. As we followed the path south, we had a beautiful view of the bay to our right and the Iviangernarsuit highlands to the left. Reaching the southern shores of Broad Bay, we crossed several rivers, one of which offered us a shackled bridge and another giving me a wet foot. But we made it past and at around 6 PM, we had reached the cape at the southern entrance to Broad Bay called Nuuluk.

We were deadbeat tired and wishing for each bend in the route to give us a view of what we wanted to see the most – namely Ilulissat Airport. When we finally reached it, we had another kilometre to go as we followed a track beside the landing strip. We reached the airport entrance around 7 PM and had the woman at the Air Greenland office call us a taxi. It seemed she was pretty used to meeting odd hikers covered in mosquito bites and dead on their feet. We’d walked the route much slower than average, but we did it, and looking back, I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. That evening, I bought an internet connection at the hostel and found the Children of the Earth series by Jean M. Auel on the the Danish library app.

Zofka

Eqip Sermia – the Calving Glacier

It had cleared up from a dull grey cover of clouds in the morning and we were met with a clear blue sky and calm waters which made the reflection in the icy water almost as sharp as the glacier itself.

I have wanted to visit Greenland for years, and I have for almost as long wanted to sleep overnight with a view of Eqi Glacier, one of Greenland’s most stunning glaciers.

In fact, it was close to not succeeding. When I contacted Arctic Friend in January, I was informed that the cabins at Eqi had been booked since October. By some fortune of good luck, it seemed there was only one available cabin left during the entire summer period.

I wanted that cabin, and therefore from I first called Arctic Friend to inquire about a trip to Greenland to having planned and booked the entire vacation only one week passed. Our entire trip was booked around this one availability. But I do not regret this for an instance. On the contrary, it has proven a perfect time to visit Disko Bay.

Disko Island and the view from the Lyngmark Glacier had been stunning and it was weird to imagine anything could surpass this, and it couldn’t – simply because the two cannot be compared. Everything in Disko Bay is so stunningly beautiful that making a ranking would be a ridiculous waste of effort.

But Eqi Glacier is still undoubtedly one of the most beautiful vistas, I have ever enjoyed.

Sailing to Eqi

We were picked up at the office of World of Greenland and taken by bus to the small dock on the other side of Ilulissat Harbour. Here we went onboard alongside thirty lively Chinese tourists. It was the beginning of quite the cultural exploration.

It was a beautiful route up the coast and for large parts of the journey, I was outside taking pictures. Inside the Chinese were having a field day and the cabin soon smelled of strong liquor from their savouring of Gammel Dansk.

When lunch came about, it was a traditional Danish lunch with open sandwiches (smørrebrød), which the guests had to make themselves. It was difficult for the Chinese and French guests onboard to figure out how the lunch buffet items of sliced halibut, fresh shrimps, eggs and much more were to be placed on top a buttered slice of rye bread.

One Chinese guest decided to take the bowl of mayonnaise and started eating from it with a spoon. I suppose that is another way to do it, though it left the rest of us without any mayo for our egg and shrimp open sandwich.

I imagine I would seem just as lost in the Chinese country side, if I was asked to figure out on my own how to prepare my own lunch of traditional dishes.

Close up of Eqi Glacier

After a few hours of sailing we reached the glacier front. It had cleared up from a dull grey cover of clouds in the morning and we were met with a clear blue sky and calm waters which made the reflection in the icy water almost as sharp as the glacier itself.

It is close to impossible to describe the beauty of a place such as Eqi Glacier and the mere fact that we had this view nearly to ourselves overnight was thrilling. But first we sailed close to the glacier front, absorbing the intricate pattern of the icy front. It was clear that large parts would soon fall into the water, but for the hour and a half that we stayed on the boat near the glacier nothing major happened.

A night in the cabin at Eqi

We were only eight people getting off the boat, and it quickly became evident that several of the cabins stood empty without guests. I later discovered that some of the large tourist agencies reserve many of the cabins, making it difficult to book without them. It pissed me off royally, and I must admit that the entire World of Greenland setup is making me extremely sad. They are creating a monopoly on tourism in Greenland, which does not benefit the locals and with the use of inexperienced and underpaid youth workers from Denmark. Of all that we have experienced so far, the only thing that has truly bothered me is the role and presence of World of Greenland.

Eqi Glacier Lodge is owned by World of Greenland, and the area around Eqi Glacier is the only place in Greenland, where it is not allowed to camp out. Simply because World of Greenland has received a monopoly from the Greenlandic state on this slice of heaven.

The place is run by youth workers and their knowledge of Greenland and the area is limited to whatever two hours intensive course they received on their arrival. It feels like a summer camp for children, more than a hotel experience.

But all of this did not minimise the absolute beauty of the place, and though my money went for a tourist agency, I do not wish to support, I do not regret for a moment that we paid the big bucks to sleep overnight at this stunning glacier at the end of the world.

Calvings…

After a night with sunshine over Eqi Glacier we woke to a grey dust of clouds. Though I prefer the blue sky, the clouds enhance the blue colours in the ice, making the the glacier more dramatic.

We did not join in on the shared walk to the moraine. We were weary from the days on Disko Island and preferred to enjoy a late morning and a shorter walk West towards the delta. This we got all to ourselves.

Reaching the delta, I couldn’t help wonder at how insignificant I am as a single human being. Being out here far away from everything disconnected from the rest of society even for just the briefest of moments, it became apparent how small I am in comparison to the nature that surrounded me. It truly feels like standing at the end of the world gazing into the unknown.

After our walk and a lunch at the restaurant Café Victor, we prepared to get the boat back to Ilulissat. We could see the boat as a small dot infront of the massive glacier, and were ready at the dock to board as soon as it came. But Eqi had been talking loudly all morning and massive calvings inside the glacier had sounded in the landscape for hours. It therefore came as no surprise when a massive amount of ice fell of the glacier side and into the water.

I was fortunate enough to catch it on film.

We were quickly pushed back up the hill by the guides before a tsunami of waves swept over the dock. It took half an hour for the waters to calm down again and for the boat to dock.

I cannot imagine a more dramatic  farewell from the beautiful Eqi glacier.

Zofka

Dog Sledding on Disko Island

I can serve you nachos, but you will have to wait a bit for the chicken. It is coming by boat in five days. Nachos without chicken it is then.

Dog sledding is a winter adventure in Greenland reserved for when the snow is new and deep. But there is one place which offers the experience of dog sledding during the Greenlandic summer. That is at Uunartuarsuup Sermia, also known as the Lyngmark Glacier. That this particular glacier allows dog sledding all year is because it is situated approximately 700 meters above sea level on Disko Island 80 km by boat from Ilulissat.

Since there is no knowing when we might return to this beautiful country, I had arranged for a two nights stay at Disko Island, including a dog sledding ride on the Lyngmark Glacier. What we got was so much more.

Disko Island

Disko Island in itself is pretty interesting. Apart from Greenland itself, it is the largest island in Greenland and one of the 100 largest in the world – slightly bigger than Zealand, the capital island of Denmark. It is in geological terms much younger than the mainland and was established some 25-65 million years ago through volcanic activity. Therefore, much of the island consist of steep basaltic mountains. Created from volcanic activity, the island offers a lot of hot springs and a plethora of plants and flowers. It is possible to find more than half of the 500 species of flora which Greenland has to offer on Disko Island, despite its northern position.

The island was first named in the Icelandic Sagas which chronicle Eric the Red’s visit to the island sometime between 982 and 985.

The main town on the island is in Greenlandic named Qeqertarsuaq, which means big island and is the same name as the island. In Danish, the town is known as Godhavn from its good natural harbour, which for centuries offered great whaling opportunities. It lies on the southern tip of Disko Island surrounded by Apostelfjeldet, Lyngmarksfjeldet and Skarvefjellet (Innap Qaqqaa) to the north.

While it has been possible to find traces of paleo-eskimo settlements around Qegertarsuaq dating back 5-6,000 years, the town itself was founded by Danish whaler Svend Sandgreen in 1773. It was the capital of North Greenland from 1782 to 1950

Apart from Qeqertarsuaq, only one small settlement remains on the island, namely Kangerluk situated 35 kilometres northwest of Qeqertarsuaq within Disko Fjord. Here 20 or so people live from hunting and fishing.

From 1924 to 1972, a coal mining town was situated on the north-eastern part of Disko Island. It was established by the Danish state and one of Greenlands largest communities, but after WW2 it was considered unprofitable and in 1968 the Danish Parliament and the Greenland Provincial Council decided to shut down the town. It was definitely closed down in 1972 and the remaining inhabitants forcefully removed. Some argue that the closing of the town was not due to the expensive mining of coal, but because of the strong workers union established there.

Our time in Qeqertarsuaq

Arriving in Qeqertarsuaq on Disko Island, one is welcomed by an entrance port created by large jaw bones of a massive whale. It is a stark reminder of the past as well as present focus on whaling in the town. The town itself is quiet and relaxing, but not particularly pretty though the colourful houses make a wonderful contrast to the mountains behind.

One of the central buildings in town is called Vorherres Blækhus, or in English Our Lord’s Ink House, and is the local church. Though I did not get the chance to go inside, the church to me was akin to a Game of Thrones tour in Dubrovnik. This is the church used in Nissebanden in Greenland for the wedding between Gemyse and Skipper – and yes if your not Danish this reference will mean nothing to you whatsoever, but if you are you’ll instantly start singing Det er risengrød…

We had not had lunch prior to leaving Ilulissat, which was mostly due to me stressing over finding the tourist port in Ilulissat, which to be honest did seem slightly confusing as there are absolutely no signs indicating that you’ve found it.

But for this reason, getting something to eat became a top priority when reaching Qeqertarsuaq, and we quickly made it to the only restaurant in town Restaurant Tamassa, where we got a cheeseburger without cheese and tomato. In the evening we’d booked a table for the same desolate restaurant and was offered a dismal meal of trout in a classic 80s sauce with watery potatoes and carrots. Fortunately, we decided to enjoy a walk through town and made it to the newly opened Blue Café, where we got a very cosmopolitan Chai Latte in the pleasant atmosphere, while a couple at the table beside us enjoyed a game of chess. little did I know that they would be our guides on the following day.

Hiking to the Lyngmark Glacier

We’d been informed on the day of our arrival as we visited the small local agency SikuAput that we would be alone for the trip to Lyngmark Glacier, which weirded us out a little. To be the only reason for a guide to make the hike and stay overnight seemed excessive. As we arrived in the morning we discovered that not only were we alone, but we would be joined by two guides as well as the dog sled owner for our trip. It also worried me that three people would have to wait for my slow ascend for several hours.

But my concerns were soon put to rest and our hike became a fantastic experience both in regards to the natural beauty of the place as well as the possibility of spending time alone with three locals, who not only told us of the island, but also freely told stories of their own childhood as well as shared their opinions and hopes and dreams for Greenland.

Though we are only a few days into our vacation, I have already come to truly value the Greenlandic openness and hospitality. Rarely have I met so friendly and engaging people as the locals in Greenland.

The hike up to the Lyngmark Glacier was rough, and more so than advertised. Sometimes it ascended very steeply, while in some places the snow had yet to melt, so that we had to cross deep rivers of snow. I put my foot and leg through several times, getting snow in my boots.

But it was all worth it. The view was stunning despite a coverage of thin clouds. After three to four hours we reached the glacier where a snow scooter was waiting to take us the last part to one of the two small cabins on top.

Here we were treated to a light and very Danish lunch before a bit of free time. The wind was howling outside so much so that I was almost blown over several times but inside the wooden  cabin it was cosy.

Say hello to Gaddafi

After a Greenlandic dinner of trout and carry sauce, the wind had settled giving way to a clear evening. It was time for meeting the dogs. Dressed all in sealskin we left the cabin to join Atip, the dog sled owner, setting off across the Lyngmark Glacier. It was a rough journey up hill as the snow was too soft but the slow tempo left ample opportunity for taking pictures and enjoying the mountainous landscape encircling us. On top of the hill was a stunning view of the beautiful mountains further inland on Disko Island.

It was absolutely amazing and with the wind gone we could enjoy a break in the massive silence only broken by the happy yelps of the dogs. The nine dogs were beautiful and much more healthy looking than those in the dog areas of Ilulissat and Qeqertarsuaq.

Particularly the nine year old lead dog with the surprising name Gaddafi was in high hoops. Sled dogs are not pets and one should never approach them unless given a green light by their owner. But with Atip’s okay, we got a chance to get close to a very friendly Gaddafi.

The return journey went much faster since it was downhill. The dogs ran quickly across the snow, some of them trying to sneak their way under the ropes in an internal battle for a better position. It was fascinating watching the movement of their behinds with tails straight in the air as they flew across the deep snow.

In March, we rode a camel through the Sahara. To think that only three months later we would be crossing the Greenland snow on a dog sled. To experience two cultures in such different climates, both of them closely connected to the nature that surrounds them, both originating in a nomadic culture where very different animals become a necessity for living.

Comfort-wise and for speed, I definitely preferred the dog sled. It is a trip I will never forget.

Returning to Qeqertarsuaq

On the following morning, the amazing view of Disko Bay and Baffin Bay was gone and instead we looked into a sheet of white as snow fell atop the Lyngmark Glacier. I will admit that I was terrified of the idea that we had to return down during a snowfall, which would only make everything wet and slippery.

However, the return journey was not as scary as I had imagined. Only at the very edge of the Lyngmark Glacier where we walked close to the edge of the mountain with a direct fall was I nervous for a glance. But as soon as we had cleared that section, it was one step at a time slowly moving down, cutting across the sections of snow and finding paths down the side of the mountain. Soon we reached the more comfortable part of the hike while the snow turned into rain and then cleared off, indicating a blue sky over Qeqertarsuaq.

Before we knew it, we were back in town making our way to the Blue Café for a bit of lunch. We were keen to avoid another sad burger at Restaurant Tamassa and we’d noticed previously that the Blue Café offered a plate of nachos with chicken.

You’ll have to wait long for the chicken…

We must have looked pretty weary and dirty entering the Blue Café. My boyfriends feet were wet, and I had mud up the inside of my pants. All we knew to think about was lunch. We asked the waitress for a nachos with chicken – in need of something that wasn’t fish.

“I can serve you nachos, but you will have to wait a bit for the chicken. It is coming by boat in five days” said the smiling waitress to us, showing us a dry sense of humour. Well then, nachos without chicken it is. We ordered our nachos, and spent the next 15 minutes watching the waitress organising for someone to bring the cheese. It seemed they’d run out of cheese too, but this at least could be provided in the town. First a young boy came running with half a bag of shredded mozzarella, and a little later a young man came in with a package of 20 bags of shredded mozzarella. This was when it occurred to me that in the cheddar cheese hasn’t made it to Greenland yet.

We got our nachos with mozzarella and no chicken as well as a toast each and enjoyed the relaxed and local atmosphere of the small café.

After finishing, we made our way to the beach taking a walk a long the shore line. The sand was black and in stark contrast to the small ice pieces which had rolled up unto the beach from the fjord. It was so very different from any beach I’d seen before and the smell of the ocean so much more potent than back home. In Greenland you can really smell the life beneath the surface.

Hours later we caught the boat back to Ilulissat tired and ready to drop, pleased that tomorrow would be a quiet walk around Ilulissat. In the back of the boat an old Greenlandic woman said something to the captain pointing to something in between the icebergs. She’d seen a wounded seal. Without further ado the captain set sail for the iceberg, and true enough a slim seal was lying on the ice flake, colouring it red. The captain took out his massive hunting knife and jumped on to the ice flake in an attempt to kill the seal and end its sufferings, but apparently it was not ready to go yet, and gracefully slipped into the cold deep sea below.

I can’t imagine that a Danish bus driver would stop the bus if he found a wounded animal on the side of the road, much less bring out a massive hunting knife to kill it off. We are so decidedly in Greenland, a land where nature is so much closer than back home.

Zofka

Three Days Driving Through Southern Morocco

As we passed a jeep, I could hear the occupants of the jeep laughing as they pointed their finger directly at me. That some of them exclaimed something about “that woman looks ridiculous” was another indicator that my riding skills were being scrutinised and found lacking.

In the knowledge that an entire week in Marrakesh would be too much, I had arranged for a three day desert trip. We never got to ride a camel in Jordan, so the combination of exploring the periphery of Sahara, seeing a less travelled part of Morocco and riding a camel, made this trip seem the perfect fit.

I can only say that had we not had the good fortune to sit in front with a first row seat of the beautiful and ever changing Southern Moroccan landscape, I would have found this trip one of the biggest wastes of time.

We set out in the early hours of the first day, spending the morning travelling up into the High Atlas. Our first and only real stop that day was at the world famous ksar Aït Benhaddou, which proved a ridiculous experience.

Aït Benhaddou

A ksar is a fortified Berber village which is most commonly build out of adobe, which is the Spanish word for mudbrick. As such there are not many historic ksour (plural word) left, since they deteriorate in a matter of years if not kept and rebuild annually. We have seen several ruins from ksour, which have been left to perish in the sun. But some are still maintained, while others are fortified with modern materials to stand the test of time. One of the most famous ksour in the world is Aït Benhaddou.

Aït Benhaddou has been a world heritage site since 1987 and used as scenery in countless movies, such as Sodom and Gomorrah (1962), The Mummy (1999), Gladiator (2000), Babel (2006) and Prince of Persia (2010). Four families still live in the ksar, but otherwise it is mostly used as a tourist hotspot today.

I would have loved to explore the place on my own, but we were greeted by the most silly of hosts – a tall Moroccan man with cowboy hat and boots and the weakest and most high pitched voice I can recall to ever have heard. The poor guy seemed to be stuck in the uncomfortable teen years with a voice that had settled for the most embarrassing. He was also a waste of time.

Had we known the guided tour was an option we could forego, we would have run from him immediately. First he and his crony Muhammed left us at a balcony overlooking the ksar, and while we were happy to take pictures there for a few minutes, we ended up waiting there in the beating sun for 30 minutes. Where he went I know not, but out of a two hours visit, it was rather frustrating to stand around.

Finally, he  took us through the lower parts of town, where he said remarkably little. This off course could be explained by his thin, but I felt it was more a calculation of us as price cattle. This seemed to be confirmed as he took us to some weird painter to buy a painting we didn’t want.

It had been our impression that he would take us to the very top of the ksar, but before long we were let out of the old ksar again with Muhammed explaining that there was no time. No way, wonder if the 30 minutes wait and the visit to the painter could have made up the time for a climb to the top. Ridiculous.

Even more so, when we stopped at a strategically well placed shop for buying shawls for protection in the desert. Yes, it was required to wear a shawl around your head. No, the cheap ones of 20 dirham would colour your face blue, so rather take the more expensive. And yes, this was definitely the cheapest place to buy shawls before reaching Sahara.

After having secured a famous business for his friend in the shop, he took us to a massive restaurant where we were joined by the hundreds of others on these bus tours into Southern Morocco. Here we were served expensive and far from impressionable tagines and were forced to pay our guide with cowboy hat and boots 50 dirham each for the made up entrance to the ksar as well as whatever tips we might feel he deserved. He got surprisingly few money from our tour group and the ridiculousness of the tour seemed to break the ice of the group over the dirty tables of the tourist restaurant.

Looking back I can say that I saw Aït Benhaddou, but what I remember is the feeling of being cheated, goated and ripped without being able to stop it.

On the road though mountains and desert

After Aït Benhaddou, we spent the most of the day crossing the High Atlas and driving the long stretch of desert through Ouarzazate and onwards to Boumalne Dades, where we were to make up for the night.

If I had not been in the front being able to see the road ahead of me, I would have been barking mad and felt very claustrophobic from the trip.

We stopped a few places such as Ouarzazate, the provincial capital, but I felt highly cheated having understood from the material of the website that we would get to walk around the city and other places. The three days promised to be an excessively long drive for very little action and with a driver who said the bare minimum about the places we saw.

Finally at Boumalne Dades, we made it to a large hotel complex catering to the many mini vans with tourists just like our own. For the second time that day, we got a dismal and dry tagine with chicken, before heading off to bed.

At some point I’d realised I’d lost my phone and looking around for it, I asked at the desk of the hotel if they had found it. For whatever reason they were angered by my question claiming that I should try searching for it instead of blaming them. I don’t know about Morocco, but where I come from a reception is a good place to start a search since they often have a lost and found box.

In general it was a strange place. A member of our travelling party could tell how he’d caught the hotel staff getting high through the night. Comforting thought.

The palmeries and roseries of Southern Morocco

After a terrible nights sleep, I found my phone in the cracks between the seats in the front of the minivan. I was pretty pessimistic about the day to come considering how the day before had been a very long drive with only short breaks a apart from Aït Benhaddou. This second part of our journey through Southern Morocco would take us almost within spitting distance of the Algerian border and out into the famous sand dunes of Erg Chebbi.

Again we had the fortune of sitting in front. The desert road from the High Atlas and south-east runs through vast areas of green. Here were both rose fields and massive palmeries. It seemed a magic place and on the map it was evident that we were driving alongside a waterway which assured the survival of the people in this remote part of Morocco.

Tinghir

It was once again a long stretch, but we were fortunate to make a stop at Tinghir, which to me became the highlight of our trip.

At first I was sceptical. We were set off by the side of the road in the middle of what seemed a bridge. Here stood a group of locals greeting the driver. Another guided tour. Free me from it.

But this time around was quite a different experience. In the hours before mid day, we ventured out into the vast palmery of Tinghir. Walking in the shade of palms and trees which supplied the locals with dates, figs, almonds, and so much more. A true oasis in the flat and dry Southern Morocco.

Tinghir, unlike Äit Benhaddou, was not a tourist trap, but a wonderful and peaceful  middle-sized town full of local life. I would have loved to have more time here. Not because we did not have time and a friendly guide who showed us much of both the palmeries and the centre, but because I would have loved to spend a day just soaking up the sleepy atmosphere in town.

Our guide made a great deal of fun with how it was the women working while the men hung around drinking tea. He’d lived for several years in the Netherlands and under his humour, I thought there might be a slight critique of himself and his fellow Moroccan men. For it was true. The palmeries were filled with women of all ages working, while the men were in town. They might have a shop, but the hard labour was left for the women.

After my pessimism at the outlook of the day, I had cheered up greatly from our visit to Tinghir and bore it well that we spent the next couple of hours driving east.

Erg Chebbi

We reached the edges of the desert well past midday, driving past several advertisements for fossils and minerals. As a last stop before reaching Erg Chebbi and the town Merzuoga, we held in at a small kiosk out in a remote stretch of nothingness. Here was our last chance to buy water for the night as well as a fossil or two. We loaded up on the first item, while noting that the price on water was a third of what it had been in Äit Benhaddou. Not that it was of any surprise that our guide with the cowboy hat and weak voice had been lying.

The guy in the kiosk however was a wonderfully friendly young man with a large and honest smile and leagues apart from the general hassle of Moroccan vendors. Leaving his small shop behind in the horizon, we were in excellent form and ready to take on a camel or two at the dunes of Erg Chebbi.

An erg is a flat desert landscape covered with wind-swept sand and clear of vegetation. It often takes form as sand dunes or a sea of sand. Morocco has two ergs or sand dunes: Erg Chebbi and the smaller Erg Chigaga. At Erg Chebbi the dunes reach up to 150 meters covering an area of 50 kilometres, but only 5 to 10 kilometres wide from east to west.

At the border of Erg Chebbi lies the small tourist town Merzuoga from where tourists are sent into the dunes on camel back.

I’ve never been good at sitting on top of an animal, and this was no different, though this time around I feel positive that the camel saddlebag was loose making my ride to the camp extremely difficult.

As we passed a jeep, I could hear the occupants of the jeep laughing as they pointed their finger directly at me. That some of them exclaimed something about “that woman looks ridiculous” was another indicator that my riding skills were being scrutinised and found lacking.

The fact that my camel was the only camel in the caravan wearing a mask against biting didn’t help the matter. Moreover, it was a pain riding downhill feeling as if you would tip over the head of the camel, because of the loose saddle.

But I survived and enjoyed it tremendously as we slowly made our way through the dunes of Erg Chebbi, reaching a tall dune from where there was an amazing view of the sunset.

Getting up on that hill, however, proved nearly impossible and I was more than once ready to give up if not for my internal stubbornness. Each step took a massive amount of effort as your foot was buried in the red sand. I was a wreck when I finally reached a proper viewpoint, but proud to have made it that far.

We didn’t stay long to enjoy the view however as a strong wind made the sand fly all over the place.

Camping in Erg Chebbi

We spent the night in a desert camp along with 200 other camel riding tourists.

The evening was a bit too much for me. Too set-up, but the food was the best we had had since leaving behind Marrakesh.

Though we missed seeing the traditional Berber music being as tired as we were, we herd it through the rough tent walls. It was intriguing and I preferred hearing it in solitude to sitting amongst the 200 other camp guests.

Returning to Marrakesh

On the following morning, hours before the sun rose, we were woken and sent towards the camels that lay around in large circle sleeping as we had done.

After a confusing half an hour we were once again riding on top of a camel – this time in pitch darkness.

Fortunately, the camel I rode on the way back was a pleasant fellow and the saddle tightly secured. If the guys in the jeep had been around, they would have been impressed. But well, you only ever meet the neighbour looking your worst.

We crossed Erg Chebbi as morning light slowly began to creep over the horizons. It was a refreshing ride after being awoken so early. Before long we reached the edge of Erg Chebbi and could see Merzuoga off in the distance.

Here we stopped and from the too of a small hill we looked towards East as the sun slowly crossed the horizon announcing a new day’s beginning.

After a breakfast at the hotel arranging the camel rides, we started off on a long ride back to Marrakesh. Too long in my opinion and once again I was thrilled that we were sitting in front where I could spent the many hours watching as the South Moroccan landscape turned from desert to high mountains.

By 7 in the evening we were set off near our new Marrakesh hotel with only one thought in mind. A shower.

Zofka

 

Essaouira – the Capital of Argan Oil

While in Essaouira, I ended up buying a small cosmetic pharmacy of rose scented argan oil though I also fell for the orange flower variation. I already know that when I run out in twenty years time, we need to make another stop to Essaouira to stuck up again.

After a few days in the hustle and bustle of Marrakesh, it seems like a different world to step foot in Essaouira three hours West.

Essaouira is an idyllic fishing port in Morocco, which attracts foreign and national tourists alike despite its harsh Atlantic winds. This is not a place made for sunbathing as the more southern Agadir. It is instead a wind- and kitesurfers’ paradise.

We’d planned a day trip to Essaouira, but before our second day in Marrakesh was over, we had agreed that we would need an overnight stay. I suppose it was a mix of wanting to not feel rushed in Essaouira and to get away from the constant chaos of the Marrakesh medina.

As we are leaving behind Essaouira, I am so very happy that we decided to stay the night. The city is small enough to see on a day trip, but we were able to dig deeper and get a sense of the atmosphere and enjoy a relaxed evening out.

Essaouira is truly a world apart from Marrakesh. Here there are no scooters and small motor bikes to watch out for. The salesmen are much friendlier and you end up able to enjoy the streets and the many shops for both tourists and locals.

About Essaouira

The city of Essaouira was in the West known as Mogador up until the 1960’s, and the small island outside of Essaouira, which has protected the bay and harbour from strong winds from the Atlantic, is still known as Île de Mogador.

There have been found traces of inhabitation in the bay from as far back as 3000 BC.

The medina of Essaouira, which dates back to the 18th century, was placed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2001. It is a stunning medina, which it is easy to fall in love with. The claustrophobic feelings of getting lost in the medina in Marrakesh are not present here. Partly it is much smaller and more intimate, and partly the sea breeze keeps reminding you of the wast Atlantic Ocean which stretches out from the city walls.

At the south-western end of the medina lies the harbour, which is a lively place with much local activity. Here fishermen clean their nets, while tourists promenade and cats and seagulls flock to eat the rotten leftovers from the fishing vessels.

It used to be the most important of Morocco’s port cities, and a central part of the commerce between Europe, Africa and the New World. Today, the port still retains its natural importance, but it has received competition from other ports such as Agadir to the south.

The harbour is separated from the town by the fortress Sqala du Port. Looking back towards Essaouira from here is an absolutely breathtaking experience. Partly because of the beauty of the fishing port, and partly because of the sharp wind, which takes your breath away.

Roses and argan trees

The smell of fresh roses is one which is so vivid in my childhood memories and which has come to be one of my favourites. When I was last in Morocco in 2007, I bought a rose cream. It has been my plan to stuck up on new rose scented products, while in Morocco.

Southern Morocco is known for its roses, but even more so for its argan oil. Unlike roses, the argan tree only exists in Morocco and the argan oil, which is a plant oil produced from the kernels of the argan tree, is therefore an original Moroccan product.

The region around Essaouira is known for its production of argan oil, which is often done in women’s collectives and through traditional handheld methods. Argan oil is produced for both culinary and cosmetic purposes, and especially the latter has become a large favourite of tourists to bring home.

While in Essaouira, I ended up buying a small cosmetic pharmacy of rose scented argan oil though I also fell for the orange flower variation. I already know that when I run out in twenty years time, we need to make another stop to Essaouira to stuck up again.

It would be a perfect excuse for returning to this tranquil and beautiful fishing port of Morocco.

Zofka

Wheelchair Friendly Paris

At the end we were all supposed to shake hands and claim something about Jesus. And so I heartily shook the hands of those around me and muttered Jesus a few times before donating 20 EUR to the basket going around.

Paris is a city which I have visited regularly the last couple of years – including the four months I stayed here while writing my thesis in 2012.

I’ve always found it slightly messy and smelly and, though romantic in parts, it is difficult to get through the streets thanks to the cars and scooters everywhere. Parisians have yet to know what the red of the traffic light indicates and the old buildings, narrow pavement and many outdoor serving areas makes it difficult to walk around comfortably. Add to this the more than 15 million tourists who visit the city each year, and Paris can be overwhelming and difficult to navigate.

But despite all this we decided to invite my mother in law to Paris, planning a trip which allowed the use of a wheelchair.

Raised water in the Seine
Raised water in the Seine
Accessible Paris

I must admit  that Paris has proven itself an amazing city to visit with a wheelchair user.

There are accessible public toilets all over the city and online it is possible to find a map of their locations.

Place de la Bastille
Place de la Bastille

While the metro system is well developed the stations are complex even for the hardy with loads of stairs and stains. But the bus system in Paris is even better and offers an amazing sightseeing option. No. 95 is my favourite bus as it travels from Montmartre through Louvre to Montparnasse.

While I always favoured the Parisian buses, I never appreciated them as much as doing this visit. All buses have easy wheelchair access apart from at a few stops clearly indicated by a yellow triangle.

And yes, even Monmartre is accessible now after the Montmartrobus, which crosses le butte on its way from Pigalle to Jules Joffrin, has been updated in late 2015.

Place du Tertre
Place du Tertre

We were rather concerned the first time we had to use the buses, but it was easy-peasy and now we are using it with great pleasure. An automatic ramp comes out from the centre door offering an almost straight entrance to the bus. And if the driver closes the door in front of you do not worry. The ramp can only come down with closed doors.

View from La Butte Montmartre
View from La Butte Montmartre
Access to Sainte-Chapelle and Notre Dame

While nearby Notre Dame draws the large crowds, the smaller and older Sainte-Chapelle is in my eye the true beauty of Île de Cité.

The Vault at Sainte-Chapelle
The Vault at Sainte-Chapelle

It is the chapel of the early royal residence of the French monarchs dating from 1248. Since handicap access was not really a priority in the middle ages, I did not think we would be able to get in with a wheelchair.

The stained glass windows of the Upper Level of Sainte-Capelle
The stained glass windows of the Upper Level of Sainte-Capelle

The narrow stone chairs to the beautiful upper floor do not seem fit for those with limited mobility. But as the upper floor used to be the main entrance from the medieval royal palace there remains a port which opens up to a landing connecting with Palais de Justice which has elevator access.

Palais de Justice
Palais de Justice

Not only did we get in to both floors, but out of the three of us only I had to pay the ticket. It is gratuit for handicapped and their assistant.

After our visit to Sainte-Chapelle we were treated a royal welcome at the corner bistro across from Palais de Justice called Les Deux Palais.

Les Deux Palais
Les Deux Palais

I’d feared that the general prejudice of arrogant French waiters would be a hindrance for us in Paris, but it seems that any arrogance I might have encountered on previous visits or heard tales about from others vanishes when a wheelchair is involved.

The Flower Market on Place Louis Lépine
The Flower Market on Place Louis Lépine

We had a lovely brunch before heading in the direction of Notre Dame, where we bypassed a 200 meter line by accessing the church through the exit. Moreover, neither of us paid the entrance fee this time around.

It was Sunday and inside the church tourists could enjoy the spectacle of a Catholic Sunday mass. While the faithful sat on the many rows of the huge cathedral, tourists walked up and down the long corridors to each side, photographing the mass. Off course if you are a believer, you can always take part no matter if you are local or foreign. But as an atheist, I’ve never felt comfortable pretending.

Notre Dame de Paris
Notre Dame de Paris

But this time around, a professional and sweet woman from the church offered us access to the church and saying yes, we ended up being guided to the front row of the mass, where I had to pretend I knew what was going on.

All the prayers and hymns were in French, and I had no idea when to get up or when to say amen and sit down. Fortunately, an extremely well-dressed middle-aged black man sat beside me. Not only could he sing along and say the prayers, but it also sounded fantastic. So for the next 45 minutes, I listened to him and made my lips sync so that it looked like I knew what I was doing.

Eucharist
Eucharist

At the end we were all supposed to shake hands and claim something about Jesus. And so I heartily shook the hands of those around me and muttered Jesus a few times before donating 20 EUR to the basket going around.

After mass
After mass

Leaving the mass, I had a great wish to re-watch The Hunchback of Notre Dame. It is surprising how well Disney copied the real mass of Notre Dame for their film.

La Taverna du Nil at Île Saint-Louis
La Taverna du Nil at Île Saint-Louis

We spent the rest of the day walking around Marais and shopping till we dropped before taking the bus home.

Jazz-band in Marais
Jazz-band in Marais

After our long weekend in Paris, I feel as if my relationship with this city of light has been renewed and I have come to appreciate a completely different side to the French capital.

Zofka

Looking for the Authentic Amsterdam

It is a favourite pass time to shock tourists who are not taking care when stepping off the walk path. Though they are ten or 15 meters away they will ring. It seems as if their constant ringing with bells has become their silent rebellion against the many tourists filling the streets and pushing out the locals.

I’ve crossed through much of Europe by now, and I even managed a day tour to Maastricht back in 2007. But that cloudy day in the town which named one of Europe’s most famous documents has been my only meeting with the Netherlands. Until now I have not had the pleasure of indulging myself in all those treats for which the country is so famous. The tulips, the Edam and Gouda cheeses and the hashes.

Amsterdams Kaashuis
Amsterdams Kaashuis

I have not really had any great need to visit the country, since it seems so comparable to Denmark. Not that it is in any way, but you start feeling a slight reluctance towards a country when you are constantly compared to or mistaken as them.

Spui Square
Spui Square

Dutch. Danish. What is the difference.

Understandably to the outsider there might not be that much of a difference. We are considered tall and blond, living in flat countries and with a naval history only rivalled by the greater nations and each other. To the untrained ear we speak languages which sound similar and we bike whenever we can.

Amsterdam canals
Amsterdam canals

To Danes – and I presume Dutch – there is a world of difference. We do not look at all the same, and in both countries the tall and blond are far from the majority. We might both be living in flat countries, but in the Netherlands they have dams to keep out water from overflowing the land, while in Denmark we have islands. As a colonial power the naval history of the Netherlands differs greatly from that of Denmark, where the English made certain in the beginning of the 19th century that our navy became kindling.

House boats
House boats

Most importantly, the languages are miles apart and the sounds not even comparable, and as I’ve realised our biking cultures are very different too. But more about that later.

Amsterdam canals
Amsterdam canals
Hands up, who have done a weekend trip to Amsterdam?

Amsterdam is a popular destination and I had read beforehand that the locals where getting increasingly tired of how much the tourist industry dominated the old city.

View from Armbrug in the Red Light District
View from Armbrug in the Red Light District

But I’d decided to gift my boyfriend with a weekend trip to somewhere in Europe, and the flights to Amsterdam were just the better option. So we ended up visiting the Dutch capital this September.

Amsterdam canals
Amsterdam canals

And I am mighty happy that we went. I can certainly understand why people are drawn to the city though for some the abundance of coffee shops might also factor in.

Looking towards De 9 Straatjes
Looking towards De 9 Straatjes

I was surprised by the city. I had not really imagined the canals to the extent that they encircle the old town. Neither had I been prepared for how many Dutch merchants houses actually made up the inner rings.

Amsterdam canals
Amsterdam canals

Amsterdam can according to newer excavations trace its history further back than the 12th century, which is considered the birth of a small fishing village on the riverbank of the Amstel River. In this Amsterdam compares to Copenhagen, where metro excavations have revealed very much the same – that the city was inhabited prior to the 12th century.

Sluyswachterhuisje from 1695
Sluyswachterhuisje from 1695

But what makes Amsterdam unique is the layout of the city with the rings of canals surrounding the medieval city. The inner most canals are Singel and the Kloveniersburgwal which surrounds he medieval part of town though not much remains of this period. From here on out extends  massive system of canals which divides Amsterdam into some 90 islands connected by around 1,300 bridges and viaducts.

Amsterdam canals
Amsterdam canals

The network of canals took form during the Golden Age of the Netherlands, from 1585-1672. The most celebrated of these canals are the Herengracht (Gentlemen’s Canal), Keizersgracht (Emperor’s Canal), and Prinsengracht (Prince’s Canal) which create a spiderweb of semicircular rings extending from the centre of the city.

The double houses in fashionable part of Amsterdam
The double houses in fashionable part of Amsterdam

The houses here are not only some of the finest Dutch houses too be found, they are also massively expensive. The most prestigious of them all are found at the Gouden Bocht – the golden bend – on the Herengracht, where the houses are double sized.

Location, location, location.

Amsterdam canals
Amsterdam canals
What to do for a weekend in Amsterdam?

1. Feeling queasy from eating a strange muffin at an Amsterdam coffee shop, check!

De Dampkring Coffeehouse
De Dampkring Coffeehouse

2. Gazing through the windows of the Red Light District, check!

Red Light District
Red Light District

3. Seeing an original Rembrandt which might in a few years no longer be a Rembrandt, check!

An original Rembrandt
An original Rembrandt

4. Shopping in Bijendorf, check!

5. Freezing through a canal tour, check!

From the boat
From the boat

6. Tasting some of the cuisines of the old Dutch colonies,check!

Rijsttafel at Restaurant Blauw
Rijsttafel at Restaurant Blauw

7. Walking through most of the inner and outer rings of the city, check!

8. Getting to know Dutch traditional cuisine, check!

Bistro Bij Ons
Bistro Bij Ons

9. Being yelled at by the local cyclists, check!

Dutch cyclists
Dutch cyclists

The only thing we didn’t do was hop on a bike, but being from Copenhagen that is not really anything special. Moreover, I would not feel very comfortable biking around Amsterdam. In Copenhagen, I’d estimate that 30% wear helmets, but in Amsterdam I only ever saw two people wearing helmets. In my opinion not wearing a helmet is bat-shit crazy.

The helmet issue was not the only difference. In Denmark we have small indistinguishable bells which we never really use. The hip guys who like to bike as if they were sprinting past the goal line in Tour de France mostly yell something like ‘move it’ to get the rest of us to notice them. In difference, the Dutch seem to love large colourful bells on their bikes, which they use whenever and wherever they can. Especially when they see a tourist.

Bells - Amsterdam fashion
Bells – Amsterdam fashion

It is a favourite pass time to shock tourists who are not taking care when stepping off the walk path. Though they are ten or 15 meters away they will ring. It seems as if their constant ringing with bells has become their silent rebellion against the many tourists filling the streets and pushing out the locals.

Amstel
Amstel
Mass tourism

I can easily understand that attitude towards tourists, since the entire inner city seems devoted to the tourist industry -be it tulips, cheese, wooden shoes or marijuana. I can only hope that my own Copenhagen will be sparred the mass tourism, which affects Amsterdam.

It seems reasonable that  the government has agreed to a law which states that shops in the centre have to sell products to locals in order to be allowed to remain. They have also made regulations which have put a stop on the conversion of inner city property to hotels as well as made strict rules on the use of AirBnb.

Amsterdam souvenirs
Amsterdam souvenirs

And the problem is in the inner city. If you only step a little beyond the inner rings you will find a much more pleasant Amsterdam to walk around in. We made a few detours out to the more natural and balanced parts of Amsterdam, and should we come again it would be to see other neighbourhoods. With the colonial history of The Netherlands I can imagine that there is a great cultural diversity beyond the inner city.

True, they did not!
True, they did not!

But it will be many years before I plan to return to the Dutch capital. I don’t like being one more reason for Amsterdam to have become what it is. Next time I go to the Netherlands, I want to explore Rotterdam or Leiden or perhaps Utrecht. There are so many options in the Netherlands.

I amsterdam
I amsterdam

And then I wish the Dutch all the best with reforming their city and taking it back, because tourism should never dominate local life.

Zofka

New Skopje and the Copy/Paste Syndrome

We are ending up in a city which looks like the temporarily built setting for an imperial world in the Star Wars universe with large white neo-classical buildings and thousands – and I mean thousands – of statues.

After two weeks we finally made it to Skopje. I visited the Macedonian capital 12 years ago and remember finding particularly the river front a wasteland with derelict concrete buildings from the years of Yugoslavian communism. A run down yet magical place.

The Skopje I once got a taste of no longer exists. The city we spent our last night in is not the city I knew back then.

New Skopje

We started in Dubrovnik, where the Game of Thrones fever had turned the inner city into King’s Landing with GoT merchandise and tour groups analysing the television-series to  the bone.

We are ending up in a city which looks like the temporarily built setting for an imperial world in the Star Wars universe with large white neo-classical buildings and thousands – and I mean thousands –  of statues. While it looks like a setting from Star Wars, it also brings associations to the bombastic and over-the-top architecture and art of the Soviet Union. It seems as if it can’t get big and opulent enough, with the white neo-classical houses and the unknown number of massive statues of people – famous and not so famous.

One of the government’s arguments for this total revamp of Skopje is to rebuilt the city in the light of what it was prior to the massive 1962 earthquake. Sadly, the faux-European style mastodon buildings seem disconnected to reality and one large battle for euro-nationalist trends in a Macedonia which seems to have forgotten the equally central cultural and historical past of its Albanian population.

It is tacky and bad taste and, as so many locals inform us, evidence of the crime and corruption which is running the country. According to Balkan Insight, the so-called Project Skopje 2014 has so far cost 670 million euros. I really do not recognise Skopje at all.

After returning home I have read that a new government which took over in the spring intends to halt the project and restore some of the buildings to before 2010. That is removing columns and statues. There is agreement amongst architects that the government headquarters which was built by famous architect Petar Mulickovski in 1970 and which in 2014 was revamped from its modernist look to a replica of the US White House should be restored to its original look. Hopefully the worst disasters will be undone though again it will cost money.

Days in Skopje

We arrived around midday from Prizren with the good fortune of a front row seat in the bus. Tired but pleased to have made it this far we found our hostel with a detour by a confused taxi driver. Not only did he request 500 dinars and then end up with a meter stating only 86 dinars, he also misread the address after five minutes checking the map on my phone and let us off on the wrong side of the river with the message that the car could go no further and we had to walk. I only paid the meter money for that tour.

After a short break and a shower in yet another well air-conditioned room we ventured out into the streets of Skopje starting with lunch at the lovely Old City House Restaurant only two minutes from our hostel.

After too many days with pizza and biftek as the only options we finally found a place which offered excellent and local food. We started with ‘Dried Plum and Pancetta Kebab’ and ‘Canapes with Pinjur’, whereafter we got the ‘Old House Pot’ and the ‘Smothered Lamb’. All of it was delicious and if we’d had more time in Skopje, we would definitely have returned.

Super Cup

Before our trip to the Balkans, yet unfortunately after we had booked the flights, we’d discovered that this years Super Cup was to be held in the Macedonian capital. This is an event which I have never previously heard about though during our visits we were constantly informed by locals that it was the biggest football event of the year.

Super Cup is the match between the winners of Champions League and the winners of Europa League. This year that meant Real Madrid and Manchester United. The fact that we had to leave on the same day as the match was heart-breaking, because this might have been the only real chance for mortals like us to watch such a match between two of European football’s greatest giants.

However, we survived and at Macedonia Square we got to experience some of the football fever and see the three trophies on display. Or replicas probably. We got to experience how the entire city was full of Man U flags and football fever.

The Copy/Paste Syndrome

On our second day in Skopje and last day of the vacation, we started out with a walking tour of the Macedonian capital, eager to hear more about not only the history of Skopje, but also the massive development of the last decade.

Our tour guide was very accommodating in offering both.

It seems not everyone is happy with the new neo-classical high-rises and our guide was far from the first who had offered his opinion on the underlying corruption and addiction to commission fees. But unlike many of the locals we had quickly chatted with, he was able to give a more fulfilling account of the development of the city and the possible future development.

Project Skopje 2014 was announced in 2010 and at the time consisted of around 40 buildings, monuments, facades and sculptures. Today the number has more than tripled and I imagine that it would be impossible to count the number of statues included in the project.

Our guide was far from pleased with the result and called much of what has been done a symptom of the governments copy-paste syndrome. Why on earth, did he ask, does Skopje need a Triumphal Arc worth 4.4 million euros, when the country has not had a victory in the last 500 years. He particularly feared the rumours of a planned copy of the Spanish Steps in Rome.

He also told us that the massive statue of Alexander the Great, which is called Warrior on a Horse, because Greece seems to think they have patent on the name of a 2300 year old warrior, has cost 8.2 million euros to construct and is 14.5 meters high. Thessaloniki in Greece is apparently constructing one that is even larger.

A game of mine is bigger than yours has been added to this sad animosity between two neighbours who could gain so much from each other and through facing their shared past together rather than fighting over names and historical figures.

However, if there is one historical personality which the Greek cannot claim it is Mother Teresa born 1910 in Skopje. A shop owner told us that the government is currently building the platform for a massive 30 metres high Mother Teresa statue. I wonder what she would be thinking of being immortalised in such an opulent way.

Old Skopje

After walking across the River Vardar and past the massive new statue of Philip II King of Macedonia and Alexander the Great’s father, we entered the old and much more authentic and picturesque old town.

Here we were treated to rakija and cold water at a local restaurant before we entered one of the old towns many cavanserais Kapan Han from the 15th century. Skopje old town is dotted with old Ottoman cavanserais or inns, which were used for people travelling to stay over night.

We’d seen one in Lefkosia in the spring and now this one. I have a particular liking for these cultural and historical buildings, not only because they are always very beautiful, but also because they tell a story of how people have travelled and crossed borders long before our time.

After walking through the old town we took the road to the fortress. It was 42°C and I was boiling like a lobster, but our very competent guide had a spot under a tree at the top ready for us to cool off in the shadow and breeze.

The tour ended after we got down from the fortress and my boyfriend and I found a local bar where we sat down for a drink. I took the chance to shortly visit the Mustafa Pasha Mosque which is one of the most remarkable architectonical and cultural buildings of Skopje and smack in the middle of the old town far from the new building boom.

Just like in Prizren I felt a sincere sense of calm in Mustafa Pasha and enjoyed the fact that a few were still praying.

Afterwards we ventured into the Old Bazaar to window gaze at all the filigree shops. While the Old Bazaar has not undergone new development projects it has definitely seen a restoration process since I was last here. Everything is very neat and tidy and all the shops cater to tourists.

The locals go to the real bazaar. Whether it is old I do not know, but behind the Old Bazaar you will come across a massive indoor market with foods and vegetables, household items and clothes – and most importantly – all the local inhabitants whom are not to be found anywhere near Old Bazaar. This is the authentic Skopje, and a magnificent place to get lost.

It stands as the best part of our Skopje visit, and I sincerely hope the many development projects of the Macedonian government wont destroy it or turn it into something else. We bought a set of tea glasses here for 2 euros which I look forward to using at home.

As our vacation has come to an end, I can only say that I am very happy to have seen Skopje last. The melancholy from seeing how much the city has changed would not have been a great companion earlier on. Both my visits to Dubrovnik and Kotor felt like coming home, but Skopje feels like meeting an old friend who has changed so much that you do not recognise each other at first.

Zofka