The Barbican fortification in Warsaw, Poland. Photo by Madelyn Given.

Scandinavian Travels 2016: Poland, Part 1

My intended travels to the other Scandinavian countries took an abrupt turn when I added Poland and the Baltic States to my itinerary. I flew from Copenhagen, Denmark to Warsaw, Poland. Poland was a place I had read so much about and wanted to visit, and since I had extra time, I took advantage of the opportunity to go there. Poland was a neighbor across the Baltic Sea from Scandinavia and Warsaw, the capital, was once called “the Paris of the north.” I checked into my hotel, centrally located within walking distance to Stare Miasto (old town) and historic parts of the city.

Across Krolewska Boulevard, in front of my hotel, is a park with the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Bordering the park is a large concrete square; as I left my hotel, I saw many military units marching into a grand formation in front of a viewing stand. Dignitaries were escorted to the platform, and soon a military band began playing, while a crowd was forming. I watched in the crowd for a few minutes before turning my attention to another side of the square where a grand concert stage was being built. In the next couple of days, the stage became grander with lighting and fixtures being assembled for the arrival of the pope, who was coming in a few days for the World Youth Conference.

From the moment I stepped into Warsaw, I was reminded of the greatest tragedy in our living history. During WWII from 1939 to 1944, Poland suffered so drastically and Warsaw was made an example by Hitler, who personally ordered the entire city blown up block by block by the German army. Then it was under the control of Russia until the collapse of USSR; finally in 1989, Poland began to rebuild. The citizens of Warsaw proudly claim that they rebuilt their city without financial aid from NATO or other countries. As I walked along many streets and avenues and boulevards, I thought of this history.

I walked to Stare Miasto several times to check out the shops and eat in the small cafes. It dates back to the 14th century, of course all rebuilt as authentically as possible, in the exact size of the original buildings, with all their colors and details of facades and trim. This was difficult, as all records were destroyed with the city razed to the ground. They pieced together information from several paintings, mostly from the Royal Castle, that were hidden in caves. The castle burned in 1939 at the beginning of the war. Museum workers risked their lives to save many of the great masterpieces, furniture, and art collections. They used the heavy doors inside the castle to carry out the valuable pieces. In 1944, the city of Warsaw was bombed to the ground. The movie Monuments Men is about this castle in Warsaw. In 1971-84, the Royal Castle was rebuilt. It is grand and ominous with hundreds of rooms.

In Stare Miasto, near the Royal Castle and the Market Square, stands the Augustinian Monastery, the Church of St. Martin, the Church of Our Lady of Grace, the Barbican (a fortification), and the Gunpowder Bastion. The high protective walls were all rebuilt, as well as the town houses. The movie The Piano was filmed here. It is difficult to comprehend the magnitude of destruction and death in this one city. I walked in another area of Warsaw, where on October 2, 1940, all Jews were ordered to this district. A month later 450,000 Jews were herded into this 307 hectare (3 square kilometers) part of Warsaw, with 3 meter high walls built with barbed wire on top. There were two sections, the big ghetto and the little ghetto, separated by a wooden pedestrian bridge. The conditions were deplorable and over 100,000 died there before July 22, 1944 when the rest of the thousands were taken daily by trains “to the east.” There is a Holocaust Museum at one part of this area.

My walks take me everywhere, in the cities, in the countryside, and in the mountains. Each is different and each is purposeful. In Warsaw, I remembered why we must never forget the past.

(posted November 29, 2016)

Windmill between Assens and Odense in Denmark. Photo by Madelyn Given.

Scandinavian Travels 2016: Denmark Reunion, Part 2

I traveled to Denmark to visit my former exchange student, Keld. He had become a special friend who kept in touch, and I was excited to meet his family.

Denmark is a flat country of 480 islands which are divided into six principle regions. Assens, where Keld lives, is on Funen. Copenhagen is on Northwestern Zealand, and some of the islands are uninhabited. Greenland, many miles away, is part of Denmark. Denmark, unlike the other Scandinavian countries, is flat: a country of fields, farmlands, and old villages. Denmark is a very modern and progressive country. It is clean and safe, with an educated, productive population. Denmark is located in a strategic part of Europe, great for commerce and tourism. It is an ideal place for sailing and there are many marinas filled with sailboats. I spent my time in Denmark with Keld, who made a great guide for me as he is a multi-linguist, a native Dane now living in Switzerland and leading a bright, interesting life.

I had been looking forward to meeting Keld’s parents since I first met Keld almost 30 years ago. In many ways I felt I knew them from our years of correspondence, phone calls, and conversations with Keld. Now I was finally going to meet Keld’s parents, Bent and Bente. Keld drove me to their home in Odense. After our introductions and morning tea, we were off for a walk on a lovely river path leading from their home. The walkway goes for miles from the suburb to the city center and old town of Odense, and it was wonderful to spend time walking and visiting together. We ended our day with a dinner lovingly prepared by Bente and dessert prepared by Bent.

Bente, Keld's mother, with a sculpture in memory of Hans Christian Anderson and his tale of the Woman with the Eggs. Photo by Madelyn Given.

Bente, Keld’s mother, with a sculpture in memory of Hans Christian Anderson and his tale of the Woman with the Eggs.

Bente, Bent, Keld, and I spent another day walking the city of Odense. Odense is an old Viking city, and in medieval times it was an important center of trade. It is now a major port for Denmark. It is a rich cultural center with museums and a cathedral. The city is known for its famous son, Hans Christian Anderson. His home is a museum, and on the lawn behind his home there is an outdoor theatre. Twice a day in the summer, performances are put on free of charge for the citizens and visitors to Odense. On stage, bit parts are acted out from of a few of the 168 tales: The Ugly Swan, The Little Mermaid, The Princess and The Pea, The Emperor’s New Suit, and Thumbelina.

After my visit with Keld and his parents, I took a train to Copenhagen. There were a few places I planned to see in this city: the first was the Little Mermaid in Copenhagen harbor. Despite the many tour buses and flocks of people, the little sculpture is part of seeing Denmark. Nearby is the Tivoli Gardens, the city’s colorful amusement park, known for world-famous music concerts with superstars performing.

I checked into a modern hotel on Nyhavn, a narrow street along the canal. Formerly there were warehouses on the wharf and this was a seedy district, but it has now been replaced with upscale restaurants and high-end clientele.

One way to see Copenhagen is by a boat tour, and there are many kinds that offer a good overview for visitors. After my boat tour, I spent my time walking the city and visiting some of the famous landmarks. Rosenborg Slot is a royal palace filled with paintings, historical objects, a furniture armory, and an underground vault of the royal crowns and jewels. Amalienborg Slot, another group of royal palaces of four identical buildings, has been the main residence of the Danish royal family since 1794. The architecture is great to see in different foreign countries and each is unique. The second highest building in Copenhagen is Kirke’s Tower, known for its distinct spirals: 400 steps on an outside spiral staircase where people can climb 295 feet to the top.

Now that I had made it to Norway and Denmark, my journey was not over, as I wanted to see all of the Scandinavian countries. I had traveled with a purpose in mind: to hike in Norway and visit Keld and his family in Denmark; now I wanted to complete a dream by visiting Sweden and Finland.

(posted November 16, 2016)

What fun to meet up with Keld, an exchange student from Denmark who stayed with us during his high school years. Photo by Madelyn Given.

Scandinavian Travels 2016: Denmark Reunion

A childhood book and an exchange student brought me to Denmark. Since my childhood, I have wanted to travel to the Scandinavian countries.

That desire was triggered by a picture book, The Surprise Doll, a book I read over and over as a young girl. It tells the story of a little girl from Scandinavia whose father was a sea captain, and each time he returned home from the sea, he brought this little girl a doll from a foreign country. She had one doll for every day of the week but Sunday and she wanted just one more. She asked her father for another doll and he said no, six dolls were enough for any little girl. (Remember, this book was written sixty years ago.) The little girl wasn’t satisfied, so she put her six dolls in her doll carriage and off she went to the village to see the doll maker. He was kind and patient and told her to leave her six dolls with him for one week and then to come back. She went home and patiently marked off every day on her calendar and then returned to the doll maker. He had made a doll that looked just like her.

Throughout my life, different things besides the children’s book also increased my desire to travel, and almost 30 years ago, we hosted an exchange student from Denmark. I learned so much from Keld, our exchange student, that I wanted to go there. More importantly, I promised Keld that I would visit him and his family.

While he stayed with us, Keld integrated into our family. Our son and daughter were in high school at the same time, involved with the same sports and activities, and it was a great experience to have Keld with us. Keld played on the ski team and the soccer team, and he traveled with us to Disney World. Our son Michael went back with Keld and spent a summer at their summer home on a small island, sailing and enjoying life by the ocean. Two years later, they toured Europe together in the summer. Keld became a lifelong friend of the family.

Finally, I kept my promise and came to Denmark to see Keld and to meet his family for the first time.  I was very excited when I arrived at the airport near Copenhagen and Keld was there to greet me.

I was happy to see that Keld was the same fun, happy, energetic, bright man who lived with us while a senior in high school. It was evening when we reached his summer home in Assens, and I could have called it a day, but Keld had prepared a lovely dinner—something that was not among his talents when he was a young exchange student. We planned to catch up the next morning, since we had both taken long journeys: the day before, Keld had driven from Switzerland where he lives now and has a business, and I had traveled from above the Arctic Circle in Norway on three flights, with long drives to and from airports.

Keld thought it would be pleasant to walk about his coastal town of Assens, Denmark. A coastal path goes by his front door, so off we went in the morning. The ocean breeze blew in our faces. In the distance, we saw several sail boats, and at sea, a tanker or two coming and going to the nearby port. The path led into a large bird sanctuary. I was startled by a nesting swan that took flight as I walked along. Several other swans were swimming gracefully in an inlet pond.

These kolonihaves offer a gardening retreat in Denmark. Photo by Madelyn Given.

These kolonihaves offer a gardening retreat in Denmark.

Keld and I walked from the shoreline back though the old town of Assens. For centuries it had been an important port for ferries between Jutland and Funen; now there are bridges between the islands and Germany. We walked through lovely city parks and to an area of tiny miniature garden houses. Here in a gated area, people who own homes in the inner city have purchased a tiny plot where they build a kolonihave, a tiny garden house. They come here to tend their flower and vegetable garden and relax. The owners and families cannot live here—it is only for their day use.

Exploring an old section of Assens, Denmark. Photo by Madelyn Given.

Exploring an old section of Assens, Denmark.

We walked throughout Assens, taking time to stop at an art museum and later have a cup of tea. We walked through city streets and old sections of cobblestone squares, all the way to the harbor and past the marina, which had many sail boats and the ship yard. We made it back to Keld’s place after spending the day catching up, and at the same time, I had enjoyed a great walking tour of a beautiful place in Denmark.

(posted October 25, 2016)