Copenhagen – Redux

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The flight from Ilulissat to Copenhagen was a long, long one and getting back to the capital was like greeting an old friend again after a week away. I said goodbye to the rest of the tour group and was only a teeny little bit sad to do so, having learnt how to say goodbye (mostly permanently) over the last 2 decades.

There was no plan TC and I had in Copenhagen apart from walking around aimlessly, eating the spectacularly New Nordic food, going cold meat shopping and getting used to the different time zone again.

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Thanks to what TC had seen in an episode in the Amazing race, stumbled our way to Ida Davidsen for smørrebrød to see a slew of plates (the daily specials) in a glass case. Because there wasn’t anyway we could have deciphered the 250 over types of smørrebrød on her menu, an old lady manning the counter painstakingly explained what the daily specials consisted of and we happily told her our orders (smoked eel, beef and prawns on bread) only to realise just how delicious but exorbitant that whole bloody meal was.

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Dinner was at Ma’ed, an Ethiopian cafe in Nørrebro that had injera (a spongy, hole-y, sourdough flatbread) on which meat, lentils and yoghurt are piled on top. TC loved it immediately and being the difficult one, I disagreed.

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When it comes to food, I stand corrected: Copenhagen is pretty life-changing. I’ve repented of my insular, reluctant inner foodie after tasting eel that doesn’t reek of brine and cucumber that can be made into a powder.

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My last night in Copenhagen was spent in Restaurant Radio, an informal, small place opened by Claus Meyer (of the Noma fame) and two other chefs near the Forum Metro station emphasising fresh, organic ingredients and innovative gastronomy. The menu on its website is seasonal and deliberately vague (and possibly too fashionable for my tastes), listing only the ingredients on each course (for instance, celeriac, cod, grain) without revealing anything about its preparation or its provenance. Which is probably why I harassed the poor servers to no end about the makeup of each particular dish.

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The meal was far from disappointing though; in fact, I was awed by each course that went something like this:

Starter: Bread with Butter mixed with caramelised onion, crackers with mushroom cream.

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Course 1: Potato cream and chips turned over in vinegar, lightly roasted Danish squid and roasted olive crunch.

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Course 2: Seared cod, dill, celeriac and cream in lumpfish roe.

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Course 3: Fried savoy cabbage, kale, apple sauce, apple strips and pistachio.

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Course 4: Roasted pork breast, salsify, pickled onions.

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Dessert: Carrot sorbet on dehydrated carrots glazed with caramel, white chocolate crunch and pearl barley.

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Thanks for the beautifully sunny day and for memories again, Copenhagen. See you sometime soon.

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Miles ahead

Miles is the sprightliest 79 year-old Brit I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting. He behaves decades younger than he really is, walks around with a bounce in his step and does everything that everyone under the age of 30 can do without much difficulty, toughing it out when it’s needed. The crisp London accent is still so very evident after living in New York for 36 years and talking to him is a little like talking to Michael Palin with a wicked, sharper edge which can often serve as a highlight for the day.

He was predictably the first to arrive at 8.45 am for the dog sledge activity and was extremely happy to find out that there would be an Inuit driver for the sledge he was going to be on.

“Oh, of course there will be a driver,” said the customer service representative with exaggerated patience after his show of relief.

“That’s good then. I thought we’d have to drive the sleds ourselves, thinking I might turn the sled over or something! Now I can just sit behind and look…imperious,” Miles proclaimed with satisfaction.

We decked ourselves in seal skin and looking like Michelin men, went south of town where the dogs were kept. Our driver came roaring in with his pack of Greenlandic hounds and off we went, half-slouching in the sled with legs extended, flying straight onto the frigid, snow-decked plains carried only by the power of furry little paws. Halfway through, a sled with overly-excited dogs got lost halfway when the dogs decided to take a merry ride of their own, stranding the poor tourist who had to share the remaining seat with 2 other persons.

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Miles was effusively excited even though it as obvious he was freezing in the air, having only rented the snow shoes but not the seal skin clothing and got concerned with the welfare of the dogs when he thought they could be treated a lot better than they currently were.

We laughed and said goodbye as he wandered off to buy trinkets for his grandchildren. We took a last turn around town, heaped praise on the pretty sights and worried about the kind of trinkets we needed to bring back.

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I bumped into Miles again at dinner and learned that his only entertainment for the rest of the night was “Ex on the beach”, a show on MTV so abysmally awful that it was fascinating.

I think I’m going to miss him a lot when we finally say goodbye.

Ilulissat’s lure

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The ancient settlement site of Sermermiut, where the Saqqaq, Early Dorset and Thule cultures lived and fished for seal and halibut in the nutrient-rich waters of the glacier is an easy kilometre south of Ilulissat, where a boardwalk cuts through its grassy slopes straight down to the waters of Ilulissat Kangerlua (Jakobshavn Icefjord). The last resident moved to Ilulissat in 1850, abandoning the site entirely. Today, it’s a UNESCO heritage site, complete with a warning not to stand too close to the shore in case a chunk of ice breaks off into the sea resulting in a tidal wave that I’m sure, has killed people before.

We visited Sermermiut in a morning blizzard that unrepentantly threw snow into our faces, just as the sun was only starting to burn off the mist. Idyllic it wasn’t (in fact, it was brutally painful), but I was nonetheless awed by the idea that I was treading ground where the ancient settlers must have walked. There was icebergs in the distance and also a view of the suicide cliff, where those who tired of their burdens (or those who needed a human sacrifice) hurled themselves off the edge into the icy waters below.

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We had better look at suicide cliff during the afternoon’s sailing among the icebergs tour; it was bitterly cold but pockets of weak sunshine gave the ‘bergs a strangely beautiful bluish-yellow tint, like a very ill man stricken with an ailment.

They are beyond beautiful, but right now, I have no words.

Moody and Bright, so goes the mood

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“Let me tell you a little about myself,” said the guide from World of Greenland (a partner of Greenland Travel) at the very start of the cultural/historical walk around the town. “I first visited Greenland in 2007, fell in love with the country and came back again in 2008. This time, I fell in love with the dog-sled guide and moved here permanently. So you can ask me anything you want about Ilulissat.”

That was probably the only snippet that was memorable; the rest was simply trivia that floated in a ear and exited the other. We walked mostly to the harbour, heard about when the ships came in, endured the smell of raw seafood and stood outside the Knud Rasmussen Museum in the freezing wind.

“She’s just telling us all the useless things I don’t care to know,” said a Brit to me.

I laughed and commiserated wholeheartedly, having felt the same way. These are after all, the essentials: walking to town takes 20 minutes; the bus runs every forty minutes and the shop close on Sunday.

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The painfully pointless walking tour simply confirmed that Ilulissat is the darling of West Greenland, despite the facilities that are barely coping with the influx of tourists that still flood the place during winter. Icebergs float serenely off the shores of the town and views go from spectacular to staggering, especially when the sun finally comes out. The number of tours offered by a variety of travel companies can be overwhelming and expensive, and the tourist dollar is fully (and possibly justifiably) milked to the core here.

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I still don’t remember anything more the guide said, except that they do offer tours apart from what’s in the excursion package. Cheered by this news, TC and I wiggled our way next door to Ice Cap tours (a competitor) and promptly signed up for ice-climbing, an activity that promised to be suitable even for beginners.

The reality is less rosy, as always. Sergei the Catalonian instructor told us it was quite an involved process and after trudging through the frozen harbour on snow-shoes, taught us to aim high and hit hard with the ultra-modern-looking pick-axe which I failed miserably at. I finished the session having managed only a miserable 5 metres from the ground with all limbs feeling like jello, aching in places I never thought muscles even existed.

Food is interesting but limited and pizza and burgers seem to be reigning catch of the day. There are only 2 cafes available to those who visit in winter and a huge number of shops (Knut P, Pilu Sports, Butik Sara) selling a surprising number of hardcore winter outdoor wear with brands I’ve never even heard of at prices that were way more reasonable than Stockholm or even Copenhagen.

But then, what do I really know about arctic travel and its paraphernalia?

Long trip off a short pier

The Travel Companion was itching to write about a day of delays and travel and I was more than happy to do so. So here, in the words of the TC…this was our day.


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The last time I ran across the name De Havilland was a mention of air craft in WWI – when planes were made of cloth stretched across wooden frames. So when my itinerary told me that the plane which we were going to take to Ilulissat was of that make, the impression I had was not a good one.

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This turned out to be a fair omen of what was to come. First, checkout time produced a quandary when I was duly informed that “your flight has been changed”. Nobody I asked seemed to know why or what it meant. Eventually, information was dragged out of the airline office which indicated that the change was made by the tour company, which took not just us but a fair number of people in our tour group and moved us from a direct flight to Ilulissat to an indirect one which took longer because it went through some other place first (admittedly, Aasiaat is just 15 minutes away from our intended destination). Why that happened was never totally clear, apart from the gossip that went around.

Worse yet, the revised itinerary indicated that our meals would be “undetermined snacks”.

As departure time came and went, twice, with our plane nowhere in sight, my suspicions were actually grounded in reality for once: the stupid plane had broken down. I was wondering if the silly thing was still made of wood and cloth and if the pilot smoked and drank while flying. Perhaps “technical issues” was a euphemism for “the pilot who got drunk and burned a hole in the wings when he dropped his cigarette on them mid-flight”? One of the other tourists in the group started speculating if we would even fly off that day…and they call me a negative person.

When the plane finally did turn up 2 hours later, I was more than a little nervous about getting on it. During the flight, I kept one eye on the nearest wheel compartment to make sure it didn’t fall off mid-flight or something and another suspiciously on the “undetermined snacks”. It was harmless and boring and a total waste of adrenaline; we got a chocolate chip cookie and 2 lemon-tasting sweets.

Well, the little plane did actually make it to Ilulissat after a strange and short stopover at Aasiaat, where we essentially got off the plane for 15 minutes so the air crew could clean the plane a bit. Little good that did, because all that looked visibly different was that our seatbelts had been rearranged more presentably.

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And it was good to know that the tourist information in Aasiaat consisted of a woman in red on the phone. 

The late arrival also meant our tour plans were a mess; almost everything in our schedule got changed after a harried-looking World of Greenland representative met us in at the fireplace of Hotel Arctic and had no answers to the accusatory questions the delayed people had for her.

“Just a few more hours and this horrible day is over,” commented a German lady in white.

I couldn’t have agreed more.

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Of course, dinner came first and it was a 2-course New Nordic-type looking thing that tasted surprisingly good. Or it could have been the company, which was an intriguing mix of German, Danish and American.

As they say, camaraderie – whether lasting or not – is forged in misfortune.

We’ll see.

The edge of the freeze

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At 180km inland, Kangerlussuaq is the most inland and thus coldest and warmest of the inhabited Greenlandic settlements. If anything, it was at least a welcome (but belated) explanation for the moment of horror that TC and I had when we first found out in Stockholm that the temperature was a whopping -36 deg. Celsius and thought that the weather app was at its most cynical self. It wasn’t the most romanticised introduction of Greenland – and definitely one not of the idyllic kayak-vacationer weaving his way among the floating icebergs, but a realistic cold-cock to the face that made us go on a pants/gloves buying spree in Copenhagen.

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Repeated checks of the weather yielded the same results and grudgingly, we admitted that we were entirely unprepared for the brutal weather, even from that short walk from plane to airport, the latter of which is like a bus stop and a cafeteria stop for world weary and jet-lagged people.

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Surreal and soulless but for the fabulous ice-cap 40 kilometres away, Kangerlussuaq grew out of the remnants of an ex-military base that served several . Most tourist activities are simply little drives (or what’s better known as the ‘Tundra Safari’ and ’Sightseeing in Town’) in modified heavy-vehicles on the roads that snake in and out of the town centre.

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There are empty, old ‘hotel’ buildings for stranded tourists and the Polar Lodge, my accommodation for 2 nights, is a staggering 50 metres walk from the runway. Several tour groups following different itineraries are cramped into this space and with only a harried-looking guide coordinating the activities, mix-ups are common and frequent. We were told to go for a briefing at the wrong time, only to find out that the briefing we were meant to be at was already over. A poor guy got left behind during the first sight-seeing tour and dinner at Rokklubben restaurant felt more like army boot camp mealtime with Christmas lights. The chef had a black eye and since we don’t speak Danish at all, it was fun speculating how he got it. Maybe a customer didn’t like his food enough?

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Seeing the Northern lights was a treat and the driver happily got himself drunk on Greenlandic coffee (a mix of whisky, grand marnier, kahlua, a little coffee and cream) as he drove us back. The Danes (un)fortunately reign supreme here – both tourists and inhabitants and English is an afterthought, which is getting to be an annoyance when jokes, stories and presentations are made in Danish and left untranslated.


After-note: I wished that we’d a few more options when it came to choosing accommodation, instead of packing ourselves into Polar Lodge which seemed to be the favourite (or only) choice of World of Greenland. There was Hotel Kangerlussuaq, whose entrance and cafe are weirdly shared with the airport entrance and a spick-and-span youth hostel on the other side of town run by the tourist office. 

Stockholm – redux

Thus far, the wireless internet has sucked. In both the hotel and in the train, but I probably should be grateful that I can actually blog and stay online while the snow-covered landscape whizzes by.

The first two days in Stockholm – en route to Copenhagen and Greenland – passed in a jet-lagged blur, and revisiting the hotel I last stayed in was a surreal experience, particularly so at the very moment I tried to borrow an electric kettle from the same man who worked at reception (which I did the last time). He nodded, went downstairs and promptly came back with the same kettle that I used over a year ago.

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Nothing seems to have changed too much. There is an eternal band of construction around Slussen, the metros are still holes in the walls dug deep underground; the people are selectively friendly and the weather is just as unforgiving. The uber-cool Scandinavian design has simply gotten cooler in fifty shades of grey, black and white, so much so that they might want to consider changing their national flag to monochromes.

I have a food-snob as a travelling companion this time – which translates to a heavier investment in meals, funkier (and sometimes more expensive) food. Which is part of the reason why I realised just how hip Stockholm can really get, especially now that we’ve managed to find time to wander the the streets of Sodermalm and Odengatan. In two days, we’ve gone to the Östermalms Saluhall for lunch and to Sodermalm for New Orleans food as well as traditional Swedish meatballs done with different sorts of meat.

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Already, we’ve planned dinner in Cafe Alma in Copenhagen when we’re not even there yet. But truthfully, it’s all because it’s near a laundromat – or at least that’s what I’m telling myself.