A short hike from the road opened up to wild sights, unlike anything anywhere else in Denmark: white chalk cliffs with over a hundred-meter drop, tropically clear turquoise waters, and rugged trees exposed to wind gusts across the Baltic Sea. Møns Klint is a UNESCO world heritage site, a Dark Sky Park for stargazing (with zero light pollution), and one of those places where I feel the quietly and slowly but steadily beating heart of this age-old Earth of ours.
The white chalk cliffs stretching over the Eastern tip of the island of Møn are all made of creatures like us, alive a long, long time ago: tiny shelled mollusks and other animals sank to the seafloor when they died and, throughout time, were compressed into white mountains. Isn’t that a beautiful mark of a short life to leave behind?
In the middle of a residential neighborhood towers a church comparable to the Copenhagen cathedral in size. A quick google search labels the wonky gothic-futuristic design as “expressionist”. It sure does express height, strength, and durability – all the opposites of the idyllic, sprawling cemetery across the road.
Resembling central European cities more than any other Nordic city, Copenhagen is populated with churches. Sleep-in mornings are impossible in my local Osterbro, as one of the churches commences a lengthy peal at 8 am, weekday or weekend, that frightens any traces of dream out into the daylight. (If you aspire to become a morning person I warmly recommend moving to Osterbro).
Danes sure love deer, and deer parks are a thing in Denmark. So much that the three large hunting grounds in the North of Zealand have become a UNESCO world heritage site for medieval par force hunting of the nobility (where animals were worn out by horse and dogs and then killed).
Half an hour’s bike ride up the coast brought us to Jaegersborg Dyrehave (the Hunter’s Castle Deer Park). First created by King Christian in the 17th century, it consists of a network of roads and paths, unfortunately giving the animals little shelter from hunting parties – and today, visitors of the park. Perhaps, during 350 years, the deer have grown accustomed of this way of living, as today their headcount is more than two thousand.
The park is vast and best explored by bike or horse-drawn carriage. In the winter, the scraggly hawthorn trees spread out over the decaying ground like they were modeling for a gothic romantic painting, and the hunting lodge looks like Edgar Allan Poe’s favorite weekend haunt.
And yet, somewhere underneath it all lie yellow and white anemones and fresh green beech leaves in wait.
The beauty of Frederiksberg Gardens was once curated to the extent that no one poorly dressed was allowed in. And like a proper English landscape garden, the curves of the waterways are just a little too neat to be natural, and the tall waterfall looks gorgeous and natural – but out of place in flat Denmark. English garden styling is like the ideal image of natural beauty.
Scattered here and there between the trees, dozens of great gray herons hunker down for winter, standing like statuettes, necks warmly folded under the neck feathers. In windy Denmark, Frederiksberg Gardens is probably a nice resting place for birds. And on a cold Saturday in November, the park is a perfect place for a leisurely walk, some headspace, and good conversation.
If the inhabitants of Lapinlahti mental hospital would have been well, I had envied them for their backyard views. Sitting there by my own free will, sipping my café-bought kombucha, I hope it gave them at least a tiny millimeter of peace and hope every day.
The Emperor of Russia gave an order to build an asylum for those needing psychiatric care, and Lapinlahti opened its doors in 1841, among the first mental hospitals in Europe. Until 2008 it has housed patients, and so so many individual destinies, hopes, fears, illusions, and disillusions.
The house is nestled in the nook of a shallow bay, surrounded landside by lush green parkland. Such a lovely place to find oneself when one is lost. Unfortunately it is never quite that simple.
Sturgeons are weird creatures. These girls are the ones who make caviar – and to whom it really belongs.
Sturgeons used to be everywhere: from the English channel to the Mediterranean, and from the Black Sea all the way throughout Siberia. Unfortunately, because catching one provides food to many, they have been fished to near-extinction.
The species of sturgeon that once swam in the Baltic Sea disappeared some 100 years ago. These days the only sturgeons out there are the Russian species which are from time to time farmed and let out into the waterways – and I have not heard of anyone catching one in a net, ever.
Curiously, these scary-looking fish lack teeth (except for the beluga sturgeon and another near-related species), and they do not use their eyes when they look for food or eat. Instead they have a good sense of smell, extended to a lot of chemical cues, and they sense weak electric signals from other living things nearby.
The Maretarium in Kotka specializes in fish found in Finnish waters – thus a lot of trout, perch, a few funny-looking pikes, and a bunch of funky eels. Even in cold Finland, where waters freeze over in the winter, there is so much going on underneath the bellies of bathing-suited summer lovers just skimming the surface of the water.
Pyhtää used to be at the border between Sweden and Russia in the 18th century. It is odd to think how far into modern Finland the border stretched: by car the journey to the current border crossing is 80 kilometers.
The church of Saint Henry was built around 1460, when Finland was part of Sweden. Elsewhere, this was the time of the War of the Roses, Aztecs, Renaissance, the “discovery” of America, and the Spanish inquisition. I doubt many here in Finland cared, though – the life here has always been relatively down-to-earth and simple. But this one masterpiece got built and it still stands today – very beautifully so.
Kymi river is one of the big ones in Finland – although naturally for one used to the Danube or the Amazon it is a tiny stream. But the beauty of Kymi lies in its many rapids and whitewaters, perfect for fly fishing salmon and trout. And simply purifying one’s mind in the white noise of the water.
This coronavirus summer, my father lead a family expedition to discover the various rapids of Kymi river. Every now and then we would get in the car and spend half a day driving around. How he knew how to find the various gravely forest roads leading down to obscure fishing spots along the many arms of Kymi river, I do not not know. Either he has photographic memory after studying Google Maps, or a very good memory from his youth adventures.
I forget which one this was… we stopped on a small bridge.
I tried to recall all the names of the rapids, but I realized we had been to many of which I have no photos, and others of which I have too many photos. But they all have one thing in common: the fishing rules are signposted in Finnish and Russian (and, surprisingly, not in Swedish, the other national language) – signaling that the border is nearby.
Many of the rapids are harnessed for hydropower use, and most do as far as I know not have fish ladders for salmon and trout to migrate upstream. On the one hand it makes me sad that the beauty is lost, but on the other hand I am grateful they are not dammed, and that fossil fuel is reduced at least a little bit thanks to the hydropower plants.
Right out there, outside of Kotka, a huge sea battle raged in 1790. Swedish forces sank 80 Russian ships, even if Sweden was severely outnumbered. It was the largest naval battle in the history of the Baltic Sea. It was also caused by a king who wanted to prove himself to be as great as the past kings he admired so much – and to shift the attention away from the problems he had in his own country.
In order to reclaim Finnish territories now in the hands of Russia, king Gustav III decided to go to war against his own cousin, Catherine the Great of Russia. Why not? Surely kings of the past used to do that all the time. Well, Catherine beat the poop out of Gustav’s army outside of Kotka the first time around, in 1789. In 1790, Catherine was probably furious, preparing to put down her cousin for good. But the wind blew up from the wrong direction, the waters were shallow and underwater rocks were strewn everywhere. Over 7,000 men died for her, compared to the much smaller loss of around 600 Swedish men.
As I am not a historian, I cannot quite understand what was gained by any party in this battle. The borders were returned as they were, and even after this great victory, Gustav III’s grand plans never advanced far enough to recapture the lost Finnish territories. His few small attempts were beat down by his cousin. Perhaps both parties were reeling from shock so much that they gave up?The tip of Kotka is now a beautiful maritime park, with gardens, sheep, picnic grounds, and an ice cream stand which always has a long line during sunny days. And it is difficult to imagine the countless ships, cannons, and human bones lying on the bottom of the sea, where it not for the soldier-like ship timber erected by the waterfront as a memorial for the (arguably quite meaningless) great battle.(Kotka, Finland; July 2020)
This year was going to be the year I finally would experience a real Japanese hanami. I would look at the cherry blossom (or sakura) forecast, and book a trip to Kyoto to view them at their finest. I would buy a delicious bento boxful of food, a bottle of sparkling wine, and sit under the cherry trees, letting the petals slowly cover me in rosy white fluffy joy.That dream remains a dream, thanks to the covid-19 outbreak. Next year I will not have the flexibility to just up and go at a moment’s notice – but I plan to plan ahead. Apparently, even if it sweeps through Kyoto in just one week, sakura season in Japan lasts for an entire month. One just needs to catch it where it is at its best.Thankfully, Copenhagen also has two cherry tree parks, at Bispebjerg cemetery and Langelinie, that give acute relief to the longing for spring in Japan.(Copenhagen, Denmark; April 2020)