Gothenburg: New Beginnings

In Sweden last week, and despite the -4 degrees, I had one of the best walks I’d had in Gothenburg for many years.  I’ve always loved the city but on earlier visits to family, we’ve stuck to the areas I know and enjoy.

Fish Market
Exterior Fish Market, Gothenburg

My first visit is always to the Feskekorke – quite literally translated as “fish church” – where fishmongers have been hawking their freshest wares since 1847 and where the shop in the basement and the restaurant up top can satisfy both the inner and outer gourmand.  Sweden’s fish, in its quality, is the best in the world in my opinion.

The Avenyn

Then there’s the Avenyn, the wide Boulevard that runs from the centre of town up to the Konstmuseet, where one can see works by Van Gogh, Picasso and Rembrandt, and some truly delightful 19th-century Nordic art, including the beautiful, evocative paintings of Carl Larsson.  The old part of town is known as The Haga, well worth a visit to browse the chic boutiques in the narrow streets full of old Swedish charm, and to people watch from the cafés that serve everything from vegan to high-end Scandinavian food.  Many of these are housed in pretty 19th-century wooden dwellings that not long ago were slated for demolition.

Skansen Kronan, Gothenburg- Pixabay
Skansen Kronan, on Risåsberget Hill in the Haga district.

 

Shopping Mall, Gothenburg
Shopping Mall in Gothenburg

I never seemed to get beyond these places, partly because of the numerous coffee shops selling cinnamon buns that I found it difficult to resist.  In Gothenburg, independent coffee shops are the rule: ask for a Starbucks and you’ll be directed to the train station where you’ll find the only branch of the chain in the city.  Coffee comes strong and black but there us always milk on the side.  In many places, a second cup comes free.

This time in Gothenburg, however, we went somewhere quite different.Canal walk in Gothenburg

The Gothia River, which cuts through the city, was home to the massive Swedish shipbuilding industry between the mid-19th century and its demise in the 1970s, much like the shipbuilding industry in Scotland and Belfast.Canal walk in Gothenburg 2

 

At its peak, 15,200 employees worked in the industry; Gothenburg was known as a shipbuilding town and Sweden was a world-leading shipbuilding nation.

Work in progressIn recent years, however, the wharves, factories and large tracts of derelict land have been undergoing a slow and painstaking transformation.  The area of Lindholmen is now one of the most dynamic places in Gothenburg, a hub of entrepreneurial skills, universities, colleges, and a business hub to encourage business and academia to work together.   Cranes and overhead gantries are silhouetted against the sky, ferries bustle across the water carrying workers and residents of the new elegant apartments lining the embankment to and from the new ‘town’.

Stena Line Boats in Harbour
Stena Line ships awaiting passengers in the Harbour

Lindholmen has moved on and has morphed from a lively shipbuilding area into a flourishing residential town, businesses have relocated here and former industrial buildings have become sports halls, gymnasiums, and chic cafes and restaurants.  The well-laid out streets and paths along the waterside, the canals that run through the ‘town’ and the sense of a young, innovative spirit is palpable. The free ferry ride to Lindholmen

There are many ways of getting to Lindholmen, bus, tram, cycling or by the free ferries which runs every 8 minutes between Stenpiren and Lindholmspiren, weekdays between the hours of 07:00 to 18:00. The ride only takes 5 minutes.

AsOne of the sleek ferryboats that criss-crosses the river in Gothenburg we had walked from the train station in town we took the ferry and walked around the area, admiring the elegant apartments with balconies that overlooked the harbour, the colourful buildings and the ducks that waddled up to us when it looked as though we might stop and feed them.  Canal in Gothenburg (Lindholmen)It was a delightful walk in an area I’d never visited before, but it’s now on my list for further exploration and a return visit to the Turkish restaurant which served one of the best pastas I’ve had in years.

How’s that for Internationalism!

Gothenburg, colourful building
New colourful buildings in the University/Business area of Lindholmen

A few tips:

Invest in a Göteborg City Card. It may seem pricey at £28 for 24 hours, but this gives you free or reduced entry to most museums and attractions, free travel on public transport including the Gothia River ferry taxis, as well as some city tours.

Do have a ride on Electric bus route 55:  Gothenburg’s first route for electric buses runs between Lindholmen Science Park and Johanneberg Science Park via Avenyn, Brunnsparken and Götaälvbron. The buses are silent and emission-free and run on electricity from wind power and hydropower. The bus route is among the most modern in the world. Among other things, passengers can recharge their phones onboard and enter and exit the bus from indoors. Ordinary Västtrafik tickets are used to ride the bus.

Beware of cyclists – like many Scandinavian countries, the bicycle is king in Gothenburg. Don’t walk on the cycle tracks (the trails are well posted on the pavements) and keep a particular eye out for them on the pavements of the wider streets.  Bike station, Pixabay

End of the day over Gothenburg Harbour
Sunshine on a steely sea: late afternoon, Lindholmen, Gothenburg

 

The Italian Lakes, Maggiore, Como & Orta

When Queen Victoria travelled to The Italian Lakes in 1879 it took four days to reach Lake Maggiore, where she stayed at the magnificent Villa Clara in Stresa.  I visited the Lakes a few weeks ago and it took me just three hours from London to my hotel in the same town on Lake Maggiore.

The Queen had to journey from London to Portsmouth, then cross to Cherbourg by boat where she boarded the waiting 9-carriage Royal train, on to Paris for an overnight stop at the British Embassy before travelling to Stresa by yet another train.  I flew from Heathrow, a two-hour trip over the Italian Alps, snow glinting in the early morning light, de-planed in Milan and then a quick one-hour run through to Stresa.

Once again, I think how lucky I am to live in this century.

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The Italian Lakes didn’t become part of the Grand Tour until the 19th century.  In the 17th and 18th centuries, this traditional trip to Europe was mainly a search for the roots of Western civilization through Greek and Roman remains, and the journey served as a rite of passage for the British nobility, landed gentry, and artists and literati who could find a sponsor.  A few women managed it – usually widows of sufficient means.

In 2008, the New York Times described the Grand Tour as something that could last from several months to several years.  The Queen couldn’t spare the time for such a long trip, and financially, I couldn’t afford it.

In my eight days, however, I did manage to cover a lot of ground.  I took in the area of Lake Maggiore and the town of Stresa, enjoyed meals along the lakefrontL I took the cable-car to the peak of nearby Monte Mottorone – a natural balcony offering magnificent views over the Alps and lakes – and walked the trails, delighting in the views from the 1,492 metres high plateau.

I took a boat to the stunning Isola Bella (I won’t translate as it is much too prosaic) and wandered through the gardens of the 17th century Borromeo Palace and I spent a day at Lake Como where I rode the Funicular to Brunate, enjoying stunning views and an incredible panorama over the larch covered hillsides that swept down to the lake which lay 500 metres below.  Another day was spent in Medieval San Giulio on Lake Orta where I visited the offshore island of the same name and walked around the perimeter of the island on a cobble-stoned path called The Silent Walk, a walk which encouraged an appreciation of the island’s beauty.

Locarno, a Swiss town on the Italian/Swiss border was another interesting day trip from Stresa by train and coach, and across the border and into Switzerland was Zermatt, a town which turned out to be completely different to what I’d thought it would be.  I had imagined sophistication and high rises but instead, I got a villagey atmosphere – rustic wooden houses and hotels but with high-end prices.  The highlight of my visit to Zermatt was the trip on the funicular to the top of the Rothorn from where I had a spectacular view of the Matterhorn, sadly not covered in snow, but with plenty of snow-covered mountains around me over which hang-gliders hovered, and plenty of hiking and walking trails to keep me occupied.

 

If I add my Italian Lakes experiences to my travels around Italy I guess I can say I’ve completed my own Grand Tour which has included plenty of Roman and Greek remains from Rome to Ragusa.

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I’m still in that post-holiday mood that makes me just want to look at my photographs and read the many guidebooks I bought, but I’ll get around to posting about the individual lakes soon.   With any luck, I should manage to link to this post today.

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BIRD WATCHING IN MALAGA

I never thought I’d find myself on a bird-watching walk as although I’m fond of all feathered creatures, spending time in their contemplation is not something that I ever imagined I would do on holiday.  Yet on my recent trip to Malaga with SilverSpain.com I became just as enthusiastic as any died-in-the-wool bird-watcher when I joined the walk through the wetlands of the Desembocdura del Guadalhorce Natural Park.

The name is quite a mouthful (it means river mouth of the Guadalhorce), but the simplicity of the place, the peace and tranquillity to be found just 20 Km. outside the city was something I hadn’t expected: nor had I expected the series of lagoons or man-make lakes, beautiful in the light of the setting sun.  I had always imagined wetlands to be marshy, boggy areas, with tufted grasses being the main feature of the landscape.

How wrong I was.  This area of five permanent lakes populated with fish and eels, supports a variety of plants that enjoy the presence of water and salt, the banks yielding tamarisks, giant reeds and rushes, with here and there scattered poplars.

SilverSpain.com had organized an expert in the field to guide us on the walk, Luis Alberto Rodriguez from BIRDAYTRIP.  Luis was just perfect both in the pace he set and in his ability to spot birds before we did.  SilverSpain.com had found someone who embraced their concept of the over-55s living an active life, enjoying varied and interesting activities often outside their comfort zone, and his enthusiasm for the area and its inhabitants infected us all.

Silver Spain - Birdwatching 2

The area is one of the most important stopover places for coastal migratory birds in the province and it is said that you can spot any bird at the river mouth during the passage periods.  The Guadalhorce river estuary is on one of the main Mediterranean-crossing routes between Europe and Africa but there is no sure way to guarantee what birds you are likely to see as much depends on winds, storms, rains, predators – and our old friend, climate change.

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The snowy plover breeds in the wetlands and at different times of the year you will see glossy ibis, flamingo, spoonbill, black stork, Caspian tern and coots.  Present all year are the endangered white-headed ducks which have been successfully breeding in the estuary since 2003, little egrets, grey herons, Kentish plovers, hoopoes (above), and Cetti’s warblers.  In summer the bitterns, Audouin’s Gulls and bee-eaters are welcome visitors and in winter the short-eared owl puts in an appearance.  Ospreys, kestrels, buzzards and sparrowhawks wheel in the sky and the marsh harrier can often be seen among the reeds.

Of 350 bird species that have been recorded in Andalucia, 260 have been spotted in this Rio Guadalhorce Nature Reserve which covers 67 hectares of prime wetland.  The Park’s five lagoons are backed by palm, willow, tamarisk, eucalyptus and poplar trees and in this woodland and by the lagoon’s edges five comfortable birding hides have been erected.

Silver Spain - river in Guadalahorce Natural Parque

The area is also a popular place for mountain-bikers, hikers and those just looking to escape the hustle and bustle of Malaga for a few hours.  Like these seasoned sportspeople, always make sure to carry water with you as there are no facilities nearby and you can de-hydrate quickly in the heat.  Depending on the season, an anti-mosquito repellent would also be a good idea.

MALAGA

This bird-watching walk was only one event organized by SilverSpain.com during the week in which we ate healthy, but delicious, meals in restaurants and hotels, visited bodegas and bars dating from 1840, watched an equestrian show, a flamenco show and had a session of mindfulness in a tranquil retreat.  Their website gives full details.

Madonie National Park, Sicily

Sicily has long been one of my favourite countries to visit.  Some will say it’s not a country but an Island that forms part of Italy but to me Sicily is so different in every way that it can be considered another country.  The food, the people, the extreme variety of environments and the landscape that can change within the distance of a few miles make this almost a paradigm of the Mediterranean.

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Mountain Village in Madonie National Park, Sicily (c) Mari Nicholson

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Sicilian Men in Village Square
Three Sicilian men in Village Square Photo: Mari Nicholson

With over a thousand miles of coastline, the highest volcano in Europe, woods, lakes and rivers that attract tourists from all over the world, it can easily be forgotten that Sicily is also blessed with magnificent parks, one of the loveliest being the Madonie National Park in Palermo Province which covers a large territory in the central-northern part of Sicily.  What makes it more attractive to the visitor is that this is not just a nature reserve: it is an area where people live and work, making it perfect for culturally rich travel.  It incorporates 15 towns and villages including Polizzi Generosa, the twin Petralia towns, Soprana and Sottana, Gangi, Castellana Sicula, Castelbuono, and Isnello, the latter two probably the most interesting.  Throughout the area are several monasteries, hermitages, and churches, many of them isolated and seemingly deserted.

Inside Castelbuono Church
The altar in Castelbuono Church Photo: Mari Nicholson
Hundreds of Years old Olive Tree Breaking Through the Rock
This olive tree is hundreds of years old and has pushed through a granite rock! Photo: Mari Nicholson

Many of the villages are semi-deserted due to the younger generation having abandoned agricultural life for the charms (and better earnings) of the city and resorts along the coast – and who can blame them?   The back-breaking toil of bringing in the olives for pressing, tending the vines and the citrus trees, and shepherding sheep and cattle in the searing heat of summer does not bring in a lot of money.

Steep Narrow Street in Mountain Village
Steep Narrow Streets in Villages Photo: Mari Nicholson

In parts of the Madonie however, there is a movement to re-open some long-closed houses, as former inhabitants return home with savings that enable them to upgrade these dwellings and use them as vacation homes.

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Semi-Deserted village in Madonie. Photo: Mari Nicholson
Wild mushrooms
Wild Mushrooms awaiting a buyer. Photo: Mari Nicholson

The Park is rich in flora and fauna with the northern slopes covered with thick woods and centuries old olive groves, cork, chestnut, ash and oak woods.  The sunny southern side is characterised by hilly slopes cultivated with wheat and barley and although the park only covers 2% of the island’s surface, more than half of the Sicilian vegetable species can be found here.

Wild Figs by the Roadside 2 (2)
Wild Figs Growing by the Roadside Delicious! Photo: Mari Nicholson
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Wild Mushrooms awaiting Chef’s attention at a Mountain Restaurant. Photo: Mari Nicholson
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Photo: Mari Nicholson

The Sicilian countryside is full of wild edible plants that are still used in local cooking and the Madonie is rich in vegetables like wild asparagus, funghi of every imaginable shape and colour, wild figs, wild chard, wild mustard, edible thistles, wild onions and wild garlic, and herbs such as fennel, borage, mint, thyme, rosemary and oregano.

As regards fauna, Madonie houses about 70% of the nesting birds and about 60% of the invertebrates of the island, among them several endemic, rare and protected species.  The Park is a paradise for bird watchers and for those who like to see mammals living free in their native habitat.  Among the animals likely to be encountered are wild boar, fallow deer, Italian hare, European hedgehog, and red fox.  And everywhere you will see butterflies of every colour and hue.

Provola delle Madonie
Madonie Provola Cheese

Specialities of the mountains which I can recommend are the Madonie Sfogio, Manna, and a delicious cheese called Madonie Provola, a characteristic pulled-curd cheese made with cow’s milk.  This is still produced in the traditional way when small ‘pears’ of cheese are made towards the end of the process, straw yellow in colour and with a thin rind, which are then tied up in pairs and hung astride a pole.

Mountain Honey for sale
Mountain Honey for Sale. Photo: Mari Nicholson
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View from the Church at Castelbuono. Photo: Mari Nicholson

Madonie Sfogio is characteristic of the Park, a pastry dessert which has been made for over 400 years and nowadays mainly produced in Polizzi Generoa, Petralia Sottana and Castellana Sicula.  A short pastry case filled with mountain cheese, candied pumpkin, egg whites, chocolate, sugar, and cinnamon, it is baked and served cold.   It can sometimes be found in other villages, often with a pistachio filling (another product of the mountains).

High in the Mountains Looking Down on the Sea
From the Mountains to the Sea. Photo: Mari Nicholson

Manna is described as the Gold of Sicily despite the difficulty of harvesting it.  It is made from the sap of specific varieties of ash trees, extracted by making incisions on the bark of the tree – rather like rubber tapping – causing a whitish resin to flow out which crystallises and creates stalactite forms which are then dried before being sold.  In the past, families used to move to the country for the summer harvesting of the manna: men incised the trees and the women and children collected the manna, but nowadays the manna is only harvested in the territories of Castelbuono and Pollina.  A few young men still follow the traditional way of doing things but as few of them have the knowledge to determine when exactly to make the first incision, it is mostly left to the older generation to harvest the sap.

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Jasmine and Geraniums most Popular Flowers in the mountains. Photo: Mari Nicholson
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Huge Granite Rocks lend Grandeur to the Scenery. Photo: Mari Nicholson

Manna has medicinal properties as well and items made from the sap are sold in many of the villages.  It is an intestinal regulator, a digestive, a light laxative, it soothes a cough, it decongests the liver and it is rich in mineral salts.  Nowadays it is used in pastry making and in cosmetics (soaps, creams etc.) and although its taste is sweet it can be used by diabetics as it doesn’t modify glycaemia.

Roads lead over the Mountains to other villages
Roads lead over the Mountains to other villages. Photo: Mari Nicholson
Village in the Madonie National Park
The Villages seem to Blend into the Mountains. Photo: Mari Nicholson

A visit to part of The Madonie can be made in a day if time is short, or there are some excellent hotels and hostels in the Park and the tourist board can advise on holidays for walkers, riders, bird-watchers, photographers – even cookery holidays.   It is a very pleasant drive, easily accessible from Palermo or Cefalù – but take it slowly as there are some very dangerous bends through the mountains – or it is possible, and not too expensive, to hire a car and driver for the day, leaving you free to stop when the mood takes you, to photograph the landscape and the people, and to relax and drink in the beauty of the park.

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Madonie National Park in its Grandeur. Photo: Mari Nicholson

When to go?  Well, spring sees spectacular spreads of wildflowers carpeting the mountain slopes while summer offers cool temperatures and an escape from the crowded coasts and cities down below.  Autumn brings rich colours from the forest foliage, wild figs to pick along the road, and a bewildering array of wild mushroom dishes in every restaurant, and in winter the ski slopes are brisk with downhill action.