Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Letter from Europe

  • — Issue 2007/12 posted by hidden europe on

Capital cities are hardly regular hidden europe territory but Stockholm would surely be a firm contender if ever we were pressed to pinpoint our favourite European capital. Others that would certainly make it onto the shortlist would be Luxembourg and Ljubljana. Somehow these are spots that capture the spirit of a country, in a way that many capitals, often the least typical city in a country, patently do not.

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Dear fellow travellers

Much of Europe may be enjoying spring sunshine, but for more northerly regions of the continent that sunshine is not always attended by great warmth. In Scandinavia, it is the season when folk sit in outdoor cafés wrapped in blankets. We lingered in Stortorget (Grand Square) in Stockholm's Gamla Stan district a few days ago, where tourists and locals braved a biting north wind to sit huddled in beige blankets and sip hot chocolate at the Chokladkoppen. This is one of those corners of Stockholm which, come summer, will attract great crowds of visitors. But for now Stortorget, with the classical lines of the Swedish Academy, and a feast of painted gabled houses, luscious shades of ochre, orange and deep red, seems almost too perfect to be real.

Capital cities are hardly regular hidden europe territory but Stockholm would surely be a firm contender if ever we were pressed to pinpoint our favourite European capital. Others that would certainly make it onto the shortlist would be Luxembourg and Ljubljana. Somehow these are spots that capture the spirit of a country, in a way that many capitals, often the least typical city in a country, patently do not. Our home city of Berlin, for example, may be a fabulously interesting place, but it is scarcely quintessential Germany.

the wandering Arctic Circle

Our Scandinavian expedition took us to the far north, where we expected to run into trolls and elves, but instead discovered, in a chilly village called Polcirkeln, that the Arctic Circle is more elusive than we had ever imagined. Had you realised that the Arctic Circle moves? So it is not just an imaginary line on a map, but one that hops around. You've probably never heard of the Serbian climatologist Milutin Milankovic. Nor had we before we arrived in Polcirkeln. Evidently, it was Milankovic who calculated how variations in the tilt of the earth's axis - a sort of astronomical wobble - cause the Arctic Circle to move around. Fortunately, the good folk in Polcirkeln recognise that visitors are not satisfied with being told that the Arctic Circle is somewhere nearby, but want to see the exact line. So they have obliged by erecting signs that show where the Arctic Circle was in 2005, exactly where it will be in 2015, and other useful indicators. Just now, it seems, this elusive line of latitude is heading north at a rate of about a metre a month - away from Polcirkeln, which now finds itself positioned a shade south of the arbitrary line from which the village takes its name.

the E10: Europe's most engaging cul de sac

Great highways are always of interest. A couple of years ago we wrote about the E30, a monster highway that runs from Cork in Ireland to the Russian port of Nakhodka on the Pacific Ocean (that text is available online on our website). Well, last week was a chance to drive another of Europe's primary trunk routes, the E10. It is, we might venture to suggest, one of Europe's more intriguing highways, for having traversed northern Scandinavia to reach the north Norwegian port of Narvik, the E10 then indulges in an extravaganza of island hopping, traversing eight islands to reach its final terminus at a place called Å, an out of the way village on the island of Moskenesøya at the very end of the Lofoten Islands. This really is a spot with that 'end of the road' feeling, the very essence of remoteness. More than four hundred kilometres driving from Narvik, not to mention ferries, tunnels, some spectacular bridges and glimpses of picture perfect villages with brightly painted wooden houses. Plus, at this time of year, a pervasive smell of cod, for air dried cod (locally called Tørrfisk) is a Lofoten speciality, and even the tiniest communities are surrounded by wooden racks on which the prized fish are hung to catch the Atlantic breeze.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)

This article was published in Letter from Europe.

About The Authors

hidden europe

and Susanne Kries manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers. They delight in discovering the exotic in the everyday.