Tag Archives: Art

“Europe’s high points” – another man’s view on “what is Europe”

First of all, yes, I actually read books like “Europe’s high points” for pleasure. Briefly, its “A guide to reaching the summit of every country in Europe – driving, walking and climbing routes to the tops of 50 countries in Europe”. I’ve been to some of these high points, and am a hiker and mountaineer experienced enough to enjoy reading descriptions of routes to peaks. Its a bit like I’m hiking there myself, but while laying home on my couch. I find reading passages like “Cross the stream and follow a pleasant shady path through the forest” (Bobotov Kuk, Montenegro) rather soothing. Of course, the book has other qualities beyond the soothing effect – it contains great photos, some interesting background information, and can actually be used as a guide for some of the easier high points. Plus, I intend to use it as an inspiration in choosing travel destinations.

Mont-Blanc - not the highest point of Europe, just of the Alps

Mont-Blanc – not the highest point of Europe, just of the Alps (that’s me there!)

This book is more controversial than you may think. The exact height of some points is debated, borders are disputed and new countries keep emerging. The section in “Europe’s high points” I find most most curious is the one in which the authors make an attempt to resolve “what is Europe”? It is much the same question I’ve had when I started this blog and defined Europe as all those countries that are a member of UEFA (a definition mentioned in the book). The definition of Europe offered by the authors of “Europe’s high points” roughly coincides with mine. But our definitions vary in some points and these are of course the differences that are most interesting.

Bobotov Kuk - contrary to what they tell you, not the highest point of Montenegro

Bobotov Kuk – contrary to what they tell you, not the highest point of Montenegro

“Europe’s high points” excludes Israel and the Caucasus countries of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan from their definition of Europe on geographical grounds. This argument is a rather peculiar one. Cyprus and Malta are also not “Europe” geographically, Cyprus lying on the Asian plate and Malta on the African one. But Cyprus is included citing cultural arguments and Malta’s geographical belonging is not discussed at all. Iceland’s inclusion can be disputed as well, as Iceland is nowhere near the continent of Europe and is as European as the Azores, for example (see below) Parts of Georgia and Azerbaijan are inside Europe’s geographical definition, being North of the Caucasus watershed, so it would be reasonable to at least include the high points of those areas, like the authors have done for Turkey.

A view on Mount Hermon - Israel's "disputed" high point from Mount Meron, Israel's "undisputed" high point (for as much as there are undisputed things down there)

A view on Mount Hermon – Israel’s “disputed” high point from Mount Meron, Israel’s “undisputed” high point (for as much as there are undisputed things down there)

Speaking of Turkey! Kazakhstan, like Turkey, has a portion of its territory in Europe, the part West of the Ural river. That part is rather flat, I agree, but there must be a high point somewhere. I can’t imagine the authors not being aware of Kazakhstan’s geography, and have the impression they (literally) cut a corner there. The miss is even bigger considering that for the sake of completeness “Europe’s high points” also lists mount Ararat, the highest point of all of Turkey. Including Khan Tengri, the 7010 meters high highest point of Kazakhstan (called “undoubtedly one of the most beautiful peaks in the world” at SummitPost.com) would surely add an extra edge to the book.

The highest point in Luxembourg has been redefined since Dave here ironed his shirt there (now its a couple of km away and a few cm higher)

The highest point in Luxembourg has been redefined since Dave here ironed his shirt there (now its a couple of km away and a few cm higher)

Further, the highest points of the Azores and Canary Islands, that lie outside of geographical Europe are included in the “disputed” section. The reason is that the highest points of Portugal and Spain are actually on these islands, and not on the mainland. If the book will be updated, the highest point of Saba will have to be included. Saba is, since the dissolution of the Netherlands Antilles in 2010, officially a part of The Netherlands. Its highest point, Mount Scenery, is 887 meters high and almost 3 times higher than the previous high point of Vaalserberg (aka Drielandenpunt).

The Vaalserberg is no longer the highest point of The Netherlands

The Vaalserberg is no longer the highest point of The Netherlands, so me (left) and Erik (right) will have to go to Saba some day to conquer the top with an iron and a board

Last but not least, I was delighted to read that “Europe’s high points” lists the high marks of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland separately. The listing is more due to the Britocentrism of the authors and less due to them sharing my UEFA-membership definition, but its always a pleasure to get an independent confirmation of one’s views. They even provided an entry for Faroe Islands (another UEFA member that I count as a “country”) in the “disputed” section. Djeravica, Kosovo’s high point, was deemed worthy a fully separate entry, despite Kosovo’s debatable status, but I’ll let that one pass.

Ben Nevis - highest point in Scotland, or the UK?

Ben Nevis – did I iron on the highest point in Scotland, or the UK?

I’m glad to have “Europe’s high points” in my possession and I’m sure I will have a great time reading it and following the routes it describes. My adventures around Europe’s high (and low) points will continue being posted here, so stay tuned! And if you have a tale of an adventure on one of the peaks, disputed or not, I’ll be happy to publish it here as a guest post.

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The music of Estonia

This is a contribution by Julie Bowen, who also wrote a guide to the Baltic for Iglu Cruise.

Music is a huge part of Estonian culture dating back to c. 1179 when ancient warriors were said to sing before a battle to rally the troops and instil morale. It’s developed through the ages and Estonia’s heritage song became their anthem of independence and even now, music festivals of all genres are held all over their country to celebrate their culture.

History of Music

Estonia has deep roots in animism – the belief that all animals, plants and objects have feelings and spirits. Therefore, storytelling and folklore have a huge place in their culture. These tales were often told though music and these songs were passed down from generation to generation. In fact, they weren’t even written down until the 19th century during wartime, when preserving Estonia’s culture and history was of the utmost importance to the Estonians. These songs not only told stories of the afterlife, giving more modern Estonians a better idea of their ancestor’s belief system, they also provided teachings on life, birth and marriage.

The Singing Revolution

When Estonia gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 with other Baltic countries Lithuania and Latvia, their love of music took on an even more important role. The “singing revolution” saw hundreds of thousands of Estonians gather to raise their flag and sing their heritage song during the 1980s. These songs had previously been banned by the Soviet Union and therefore carried a strong message of defiance. This show of togetherness and solidarity caught the attention of the Baltic’s Communist party, who eventually pushed for Estonia’s independence in the early 90s.

Modern Music

Music is still a prevalent part of modern Estonian life with a range of festivals taking part every year. Estonia’s Song Festival is one example. Every five years in the country’s capital, Tallinn, up to 18,000 choir singers take part in the atmospheric song festival in order to sing well-known Estonian songs, including their heritage song.

As well as the song festival, Estonia also hosts a range of instrument-based festivals, including the incredibly varied Haapsalu String Festival and Accordion Festival also known as “Harmoonika”. The latter sees several accordion players pay homage to famous Estonian musician Karl Kikas. The popularity of the modern song, dance and music festivals reflect the country’s deep love of music to this day, showing the world that peaceful protesting and storytelling through verse still has a firm and effective place in Estonian culture.

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10 ways to tell you’ve lived too long in Rotterdam

While I was working on the list of 21 signs you have been too long in the Netherlands, I noticed that a few of the things I came up with were, in fact, not generally applicable to the Netherlands, but were specific to Rotterdam.

  1. You think it was worth it to stand for two hours in line at Richard Visser’s on December 31st to get the best oliebollen in the country.
  2. You remember the last time Feyenoord actually won something.
  3. You follow the performances of Sparta and Excelsior in the second league.
  4. You refer to the capital of the Netherlands as 020.
  5. You know the bridges in Rotterdam by their nicknames.
  6. When you cross the Maas to the other side from the one you live on, you get homesick.
  7. Which is why you actually avoid the other side.
  8. Skyscrapers built in a couple of weeks no longer surprise you.
  9. Bram Ladage fries are a healthy snack.
  10. You have a favourite modern architecture icon in Rotterdam (mine is the Bergpolderflat).
Richard Visser

Richard Visser

Bergpolderflat

Bergpolderflat

The Maas

The Maas

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Jewish Rotterdam

Small European countries are known for their stability. For a great deal, a small European country looks and sounds the same as a few decades ago – the trams, universities, cafe’s, parliaments, all were there a century ago, are still around and will probably be there in another 100 years. There is, however, a major “ingredient” that is virtually absent from modern small European countries. Its the Jews. Just 75 years ago, most countries in Europe had a significant Jewish community. Then… well, I guess you know the history.

After WWII and the Holocaust, the little Jewish presence remaining in Europe dwindled further due to immigration to Israel and the USA. Nowadays, the only countries in Europe with a sizable Jewish community are France, UK, Russia and Germany – all large countries. Only 3000 Jews live in Poland, that before WWII was home to more than 3 million Jews, the largest Jewish community in the world. But although there are Jewish lawyers, comedians and politicians, Jewish communities are just too small to be a factor in the daily life of any small European countries.

The Jews may be largely gone but their presence is not entirely erased even if it is sometimes not tangible. A good example of hidden Jewish presence are Hebrew words integrated into European languages like “mazzel” or “lef” in Dutch, meaning “luck” and “courage” (“lev” actually means “heart” in Hebrew). Actually, all European languages use “amen” and “hallelujah”, words that come from Hebrew.

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Even though Amsterdam was synonymous with Jewish life in the Netherlands, Rotterdam has a long history of Jewish presence, too. And I’d like to contribute to preserving this history by proposing you a tour of Jewish Rotterdam. Rotterdam had a Jewish community from the early 1600’s. In the 1930’s Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria came to Rotterdam as to the rest of the Netherlands, Anne Frank of course being the most famous of those. In Rotterdam some refugees were hosted in the Quarantine on Heijplaat. During WWII Rotterdam’s Jewish community was hit double hard. The centre of the city, where most Jews lived and that contained the historical Jewish buildings like most synagogues was bombed by the Luftwaffe on 14th of May 1940. Then the Rotterdam Jews were gathered at the infamous Loods 24 and deported to the extermination camps, from where almost none returned. A small number of Jews still live in Rotterdam, like myself or these guys. But as elsewhere in Europe, most Jews in Rotterdam are dead Jews. Jewish cemeteries are not emptied, but remain sacred ground forever (or, at least, until Judgement Day). So the Jewish graves are still there at several locations around town. Right next door to me, for example, are the oldest Jews of Rotterdam, buried at Bet Hagajiem cemetery. Another one is not too far away at the Oostzeedijk. As you can see, there’s not much left of Jewish Rotterdam. But this just means there’s even more reason to preserve what remains.

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How being a man almost got me killed

PC160026

Since I am a man, I am blessed with tunnel vision. I can’t find my keys, my glasses or the honey jar in the kitchen cabinet. Basically, I can’t see much that is not directly in front of me. And to be honest, not a lot of what’s in front of me, either. Aggravated by my pathological absent-mindedness, and the early hour, being a man almost got me killed this week.

I was cycling to work, as usual, when I looked to the right and saw this couple. At 8 in the morning, in the December freeze, they were sitting in their garden, just chillin’. I almost fell off my bike, narrowly escaping getting underneath the wheels of a passing bus. Are these people all right? Are they alive? Should I say something?

After I regained my senses, I had a better look, and saw the big picture. They were puppets. Live-size puppets, with faces printed on cardboard attached to their heads. I also saw the huge sheet on the house wall, saying “50 years of marriage”. In Holland, as in most places, being married for 50 years is a big deal. But the Dutch have a special relationship with the number 50. The huge puppet is a part of that 50-fetish. When people turn 50, or are married for 50 years, their friend and family “bless” them with a huge, ugly version of themselves, in the garden, on the chimney, or nailed to the door, sometimes dressed in an “interesting” fashion, or other-wisely “spiced”. I’m OK with traditions, but putting a warning sign for the cyclists would be a nice gesture.

The big picture

The big picture

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Singels in Rotterdam (this is not a typo)

Everybody knows the cliche of the Inuit having 70 words for snow. Snow is what they have, so they come up with lots of words for it. Well, the Dutch have the same with waterways. Gracht, sloot, vaart, kanaal are just some of the words in the Dutch language used to designate a man-made elongated body of water. The most famous of the Dutch waterways are probably the semi-circular canals of Amsterdam, known as the Grachtengordel or Channel Belt. Rotterdam has its own set of canals, called “singels”, that more or less encircle the city centre (click here for a map). Although these are not as well-known as the Amsterdam ones, they also make for pretty nice pictures. Like these ones:

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Occupy Frankfurt (for a day)

Occupy Frankfurt – going strong?

I was stuck. My week in Karlsruhe was over on Saturday and on Sunday I was meeting a friend from overseas who by supposed to be in Frankfurt. In the last moment he couldn’t make it, but my train tickets were already booked and paid for, so I was stuck in Frankfurt for a day. Since I was already there, I was going to make the best of it.

As I was leaving Karlsruhe that Sunday morning, the all-German punk and anarchist meeting was in full swing. Police was out in force and the station hall echoed with the battle cries of the already (or still?) drunk punks. In Frankfurt the setting couldn’t have been more different. Here instead of greasy hobo’s in fatigues the station was full of teenagers sunken deeply into their anime characters, in town for the Buchmesse, that apparently was having a cartoon day. There were queens, dwarfs, fairies, pokemons and god knows what else.

At the station I have violated pretty much all the rules of safe travelling by storing my passport and laptop in the station locker. Damn if I’m going to carry a 4-kg  laptop around all day long. And the passport is just as safe there as it is in my pocket. A bit stunned by the technicolour garbs of the anime teens and feeling out of tune, out in the street I was welcomed to Frankfurt by the warm autumn sunshine.

The last glimpse of good weather

Manoeuvring my way through the joggers on the river bank, I was accompanied on my morning stroll by the melancholic sounds of the accordion from the pedestrian bridge. The shiny appearance of the old Turk playing the accordion was completely out of sync with the melody he was producing. I always appreciate a good dose of irony, so this guy’s contradictory appearance earned him an extra Euro.

The many museums of the city (and the starting drizzle) were calling for a museum run. I’ve tricked the cashier of the Jugendgasse to count me as a student (it’s called being a PhD student for a reason), thereby also proving my credentials. Having thus aquired a solid discount, I pressed on to roam the slightly dull Jugendgasse, the way too German humour of the Comics museum and the superb Museum of Modern Art. I’ve had a good laugh about the kitschy modern glass and the ridiculous Baroque porcelain at the Museum of Applied Art and capped it off among the old masters and new arrivals in the Städel museum, having braved the line of Sunday art consumers.

It was already getting late, so I went to find me a dinner. For some reason I was set on finding Thai food, which proved to be the only kind unavailable in Frankfurt. I’ve browsed the whole red light district in vain (because that’s the place where restaurants are, and because it is close to the station, not because of what you were thinking). By now it was raining cats and dogs, and Chinese food seemed close enough. There were two restaurants named “Jade” on both sides of the street. “One’s as good as other” I thought and couldn’t have been more wrong. The first Jade I went into was packed. “One minute – you wait!” shouted the passing waitress. I waited for five minutes in vain and attempted to ask politely whether there was a chance of getting some food. My attempt was answered by now an angry “You wait!” The train was leaving in an hour, I was hungry and wet and in no mood or shape to “You wait!”

Crossing the street to Jade-2 was the best move I’ve done in weeks. The vegetable soup arrived within minutes to warm me, the fish with rice some-chinese-province-style filled me to the rim (and there was half of it left for a train snack). I enquired whether jasmine tea was served in pots. Apparently my question duly impressed (or insulted) the owner, since I’ve got the tea free of charge, so that the final bill was less than 10 Euro.

A typical geoscientist’s vacation photo

The train station was just 5 minutes walk from the Jade Wok. Having pulled my backpack from the locker I’ve changed into dry shoes and socks (blessed be a pair of dry socks at the right moment!) and boarded the ICE homeward. A day in Frankfurt – check!

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