A Very Merry Christmas

Day 284 (19th of December 2016) – Amsterdam, Netherlands

A relaxed sleep-in after the late night in Amsterdam’s Red Light District ended here.

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It was at Amsterdam Centraal station that we were meeting Natasha and Matthew for a trip to the Netherlands’ fourth largest city: Utrecht. Natasha is the friend I met on my tour of Russia, Belarus and Poland. If you were following my blog way back in August, you would recall this photo of our friend group taken in Minsk, Belarus. Natasha is in the front row of the horse carriage on the left.

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Back when I met her, Tash was on her way to beginning her university exchange in the Netherlands. As a law student at Macquarie Uni in Sydney, she took the opportunity to complete a number of subjects at Utrecht University, the largest university in the Netherlands. She’s halfway through this sojourn in the Netherlands, and her boyfriend Matt (an old boy of Joeys, but we’ll forgive that) had just arrived in Amsterdam to meet her for a few weeks of travel together.

The train from Amsterdam to Utrecht was priced as an intercity train, although it only took just over twenty minutes. Being in the centre of the Netherlands, Utrecht Centraal is one of the main transport hubs of the country. After eventually finding our way out of what seemed like an international airport, Natasha pointed Aimee and I in the right direction for exploring the city centre of Utrecht. We organised a time to meet for lunch while her and Matthew went back to her house to drop off their bags and pick up some bikes. Aimee and I were left to our devices in the city that we probably knew least about out of all the ones we had planned to visit on this trip.

The streets were cleaner and the crowds were sparser than Amsterdam, but the town retained that classic quaint Netherlands vibe. With the demographic of people strutting past us, it quickly became obvious that Utrecht is very much a student city. The town is home to many more higher education institutions than just Utrecht University, and as such, it can be seen as something of an Oxford of the Netherlands.

One other observation which we made when walking around the city was the presence of an unusual amount of little white rabbits. Not literal rabbits, but small cartoons with an ‘x’ over the mouth. After raking our memories to work out why it looked so familiar, we realised that this was the childhood cartoon character “Miffy”.

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Miffy, or “Nijntje” as she’s known to the Dutch, was first illustrated in 1955 as the clever creation of Utrecht-born Dick Bruna. Miffy picture books then went on to capture the hearts of children, selling over 85 million copies worldwide. Miffy can still be spotted everywhere in Utrecht from statues to graffiti to traffic lights.

While researching on our phones why Miffy was suddenly appearing everywhere, we wandered over to the Dom Tower.

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The Dom Tower is the 14th century 112.5m tall symbol of Utrecht, and its associated cathedral stands detached due to the collapse of the joining nave in 1674.

The Tower marks the spot where the city of Utrecht originated almost 2,000 years ago.

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It was following our look at this tower that my bladder got the better of me, and I was soon at this funky looking urinal which I considered memorable enough to include in the blog.

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In the half an hour left before meeting Natasha and Matthew for lunch, Aimee and I decided to wander through Utrecht’s canals to see whether they had anything to offer over Amsterdam. They were certainly much lower than those in the Dam, and merchants in the city made use of this by setting up shops a level down right on the shoreline of the water.

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We met back up with Natasha and Matthew after they had ridden their bikes back into the city centre, with Matt still limping after mounting a bike which was clearly too big for him. We searched for a restaurant which gave Aimee a few options for a meal, and eventually we found an Italian restaurant with gluten-free pizza right along the canal. We almost settled for a seat outside before we saw the cellar within.

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It made for an excellent lunch and a great way to catch up with Natasha and get to know her partner. She hasn’t changed (which is a good thing) – still some of the best company you can ask for.

Following the lunch we parted ways and Aimee and I took a brief detour through the town before returning to the train station for the journey home. We stopped by the “taxidermy restaurant” which Natasha recommended we look at which, sure enough, was lined with some ominous-looking stuffed animal skins.

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A late afternoon of eating cheese straight from the block and watching Rick & Morty was in order.

We ended up falling asleep in front of the computer, and probably for good reason. We were tired out of our minds after some intense travel. I’ve been matching Aimee’s habit of early mornings and she’s been matching mine of late evenings, meaning that there’s not much time left to sleep in between. We’re slowly finding a middle ground.

We were woken up after being asleep for two hours at 8pm to the sound of a fire alarm. With my own history of having a fit when being woken up by emergency alarms, I did my best to calm myself while at the same time holding back a scream. After about thirty seconds the alarm stopped and people in the hallway were acting as if it had never happened, and so we returned to our room. It was at about this time that I started getting bombarded by messages from Bianca telling me to get on a call. I abided.

There, sitting in front of me on the phone screen, was Bianca at Thibault’s house. Thibault Fourcade was my billet from the 2013 Riverview French Exchange to Toulouse. Him and I were a perfect match, getting on well the whole time and improving each other’s language to a significant degree. His family were particularly kindhearted. They live 30 minutes out of Toulouse in what is practically the countryside, where they raise chickens and look after their huge plot of land while the Dad builds usable helicopters.

It’s very hard to describe how emotional it was seeing Bianca at their house. And I didn’t expect to feel that way.

This is a family who not only let me live with them for a month, but also loved and cared for me at a vulnerable age when I was away from home for one of the first times in my life. They were the ones who taught me that stuffing up when trying a new language isn’t embarrassing – it’s a badge of honour. It’s how you learn. They were the ones who laughed with me, not at me. It’s the reason my French improved so much on that trip, and ultimately, it’s the reason my Chinese is what it is today. Because I learned a valuable lesson that there’s no shame in failure.

I have many fond memories of waking in the dark to drive to school and then returning in the moonlight. I can remember Thibault and I rapping along to Eminem and trashy EDM while his mum drove the tiny car through the deserted foggy streets of outskirts Toulouse, pointing out the Pyrenees in the distance on a clear day. I can remember hiding in my room when Thibault bumped and smashed a huge antique vase in the hallway in the early hours of the morning, sneaking around for reasons that shall not be recounted. I can remember meeting his late grandfather from Romania, attempting oh-so-desperately to understand his father’s job to do with satellites over dinner, and eating the mother’s weird and wonderful French side dishes. The very same dishes which, it turns out, Bianca also ate with the Fourcades.

I guess the reason that it was emotional for me was that I never expected any of my Australian family to ever meet my French parents. At the time that I was on the exchange, I never would have thought in a million years that my sister would see the room I slept in or meet the people who looked after me for so long.

On the call I struggled through my basic French vocab greeting Thibault, his father Jean and his mother Daniela. I also met Bianca’s billet Solème who will also no doubt help shape the same priceless memories for B.

The whole call was a pleasant end to the evening. I went to sleep thankful that the fire alarm went off.

There was a little bit of scary news to send us to sleep, though. I received a notification on my phone from BBC that the Berlin Christmas Market at Breitscheidplatz had endured a terrorist attack of a gruesome nature. Out of respect for not fulfilling one of the terrorist’s motives, I’d prefer not to go into the attack so as to not give the attacker the attention he craved. All I’ll say is that it absolutely won’t change Aimee and I’s insistence that we see as many Christmas markets as we possibly can at this festive time of year.

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Day 285 (20th of December 2016) – Amsterdam, Netherlands

Our day began with a return to the Amsterdam Canal Ring to do what we had promised each other that we would do while in the city – a canal cruise.

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After my extraordinary experience doing a similar thing in St Petersburg, I was on the edge of my seat to do the same in a city which is more famous for boat rides. I handed the camera over to Aimee (who apologises about the reflection of the windows… take my word, she’s a much more talented photographer than I am) who took some snaps of the hour-long cruise.

Her love for animals certainly showed itself in the camera roll afterwards.

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My favourite part of the cruise was seeing rows of crooked houses, some with impossibly thin facades, mostly painted in shades of black and navy with the occasional brightly coloured one.

Another one of our favourite sights was all of the houseboats and floating restaurants lining the wider canals.

Some of the bridges which we drove under were menacingly low and narrow, but somehow the driver poked us through each opening with precision.

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Amsterdam is currently holding its light festival, and some of the displays could be seen along the cruise. We made a decision to return at night once they had been illuminated.

One of the quirkiest things which we saw on the cruise was a man rowing his own boat and playing music at the same time. Apparently he does this frequently for no money, doing it only for the fun of making people smile.

Our cruise ended with good timing for our booking at the next activity of the day – Anne Frank House.

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We only had to endure the cold outside for a few minutes before we were let in.

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The Anne Frank House is a biographical museum dedicated to Jewish wartime diarist Anne Frank. This young Jewish girl was killed at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp after Nazi SS-men stormed the very house where the museum is located and found Anne with her family in hiding. Anne gained fame posthumously following the publication of her diary, The Diary of a Young Girl, which documents her life in hiding from 1942 to 1944 during the German occupation of the Netherlands. That diary was also written in this house.

We weren’t allowed to take photos in the museum, but this picture from the internet demonstrates just how thin and steep the staircase was which led to the secret annex where Anne and the Frank family were in hiding above their father’s factory. The entrance was hidden by a bookcase, and Anne’s father’s employees became the family’s “helpers” who’d emerge into Amsterdam every day to gather the necessary supplies for the Jews within the house.

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Anne Frank House is probably the best museum Aimee and I have visited so far on the trip. It humanises the victims of World War II, particularly children, in a way that other exhibitions are simply unable to. Aimee’s now reading the world-famous diary.

After the museum visit, we caught a tram to Museumplein where we returned to the Christmas Markets. It was here that I tried to return my watch due to a faulty battery. Unfortunately the adjacent market had closed because it wasn’t the weekend, and I was left with no choice but to try and navigate the company’s website to work out how to get the watch replaced.

We took the opportunity of being in the market area to return for a warm snack in the -3℃ weather.

Museumplein was also the location of the gallery which Aimee and I were most interested in visiting – the MoCo (Modern Contemporary Museum). Our visit to Amsterdam coincided with a Banksy (the globally-known anonymous graffiti artist) and Andy Worhol (king of pop art) exhibition at this gallery, and after my failed attempt to see some Michael Wolf works earlier in the day, it sounded like the perfect afternoon. Contemporary art, particularly urban art, is something which I really enjoy looking at and analysing. I especially like the often relevant political messages behind a lot of the pieces. Banksy and Andy Worhol are saints in that regard.

It wasn’t long after entering that we saw some prints of Banksy’s famous “Girl with a Balloon”.

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This little illustration, produced in Banksy’s famous stencil style, can be found all over clothing and merchandise today. Originally discovered in the South Bank of London in 2002, the image and its caption “there is always hope” symbolises that there always a spark of brightness even amidst bleakness.

You might recognise a few of the other works at the exhibition.

We were beginning to yawn at the end of the museum, not out of boredom but sheer exhaustion. Our detour to the Magna Plaza on the way home didn’t last very long.

One thing which we did pick up, though, was a couple of bags of lollies.

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This sustained us until the evening when we went out to Wagamama for a Japanese dinner. On the way to the restaurant, we went to the head office of KANE watches (the brand of the watch I bought at the markets) to get my purchase replaced.

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The faulty watch battery was a happy accident. Going to the head office meant that we were able to pass through the more private canals of Amsterdam, seeing where some of the wealthier people live and where a number of startups are located. One such startup was this watch company. It turns out that I was one of the first customers of this brand. The boss (who was expecting us), took the opportunity of me getting a replacement to walk us through everything. Aimee and I got to see everything from the initial designs to the final product, as well as a new line of watches which they were bringing out in the months ahead. Walking around the design room, we also saw the “wall of inspiration”. Photos of classy looking men in blazers dominated the wall, but most notably, there was a blatantly naked woman pasted in the middle of it.

“Yes, that’s ermm, ahh, the inspiration for the sexiness of the watch,” he explained, laughing.

It was a valuable experience to see the inside of a Dutch startup by absolute accident.

On the way to the restaurant, we passed by some of the more prominent displays of the Amsterdam Light Festival.

And finally, some excellent Japanese to end the night.

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Day 286 (21st of December 2016) – Hamburg, Germany

Some in-depth planning from Aimee and I in the early stages of preparing for this holiday meant that this morning was a flight from Amsterdam to Hamburg. With our specific combination of train journeys, this ended up saving us hundreds of dollars, and of course would mean that we’d get back to Germany far quicker.

It did, however, mean a 6:15am departure from the hotel. After sneaking in a hotel breakfast, we boarded the train out to the airport two hours before the flight. Apparently you have to do this despite our destination also being in the EU.

Sure enough, the extra time ended up being used for the security check instead of any sort of passport control. The laborious wait was only made better by the swiftness of the flight. In less than 50 minutes we touched down in Hamburg. We spent more time at the airport than we did on the flight.

Once in Hamburg, we zipped straight to the central station to find our accommodation.

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This city is the second largest in Germany and the eight largest in the EU. Most notably, though, it’s Germany’s biggest port. A lot of the city, particular its centre, is based around the harbour. Hamburg is known for its wealth – something which is rooted in its history going as far back as the Middle Ages. Joining the Hanseatic League in this period set the foundations for Hamburg being one of the centres of international trade in the 18th and 19th centuries. It is also thought that hamburgers originated in this city, initially referring to Hamburg’s Frikadeller (a pan-fried patty).

Only being in Hamburg for two nights, we decided to stay in a private hostel room to offset some of our splurging in the more expensive cities. As expected, the room was underwhelming with its bathroom being a poor excuse even for an aeroplane lavatory. But, as with all good hostels, its lobby and bar provided an excellent atmosphere where you would hang out for most of your off-time during the day and evening. In fact, this very bar was once a recording studio used by The Beatles. We were tasting a little bit of Hamburg’s most famous legacy – the city’s nurturing of The Beatles in their early stages.

This fact, along with Hamburg’s other connections to anglophone countries, led to the common use of the Hamburger saying: “When it starts raining in London, people in Hamburg open their umbrellas.”

Anticipating a wait for check-in, Aimee and I had booked our first activity to occur as soon as we arrived. We left our bags at the hostel and left to walk to the Chocoversum Museum. As the name hints, this is Hamburg’s museum of chocolate. The museum is run by the German chocolate company “Hachez” (the second biggest in size only to Lindt).

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The tour was all in German, but an English booklet got us through the painful waits between each new chocolate taste-test. With each new piece, they guided us through the proper techniques of “chocolate appreciation”: smelling the chocolate, listening to the snap of the chocolate, rubbing the chocolate, and letting it sit on your tongue.

The museum exhibitions were in chronological order from the cultivation of the cocoa plant all the way to the final packaging of chocolate. We were even able to crack and taste straight cocoa beans. There were some interesting diagrams about their structure, including how much cocoa or cocoa butter is needed for each type of chocolate, and what flavour properties it brings.

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We were able to taste scoops of soon-to-be chocolate at each stage of the production process.

At the end came what we were all waiting for – an opportunity to make our own chocolate. We were given the chocolate in liquid form and allowed to put any number of a range of ingredients in it. Aimee opted for dark chocolate with sugar confetti, chocolate chips and coconut. I chose the coffee beans, cranberries, cocoa shavings and hazelnut (pictured below).

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After exploring some more of the museum, we were handed our finished products.

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We spent much of the afternoon and evening back at the hostel, churning through loads of washing and some other chores. Our break came in the form of a visit to the Christmas Markets and a Vietnamese dinner.

The unique thing about Hamburg’s Christmas Markets is that they exist in clusters, scattered throughout the central Mitte district. This means that you can walk for kilometres through different festive environments.

One of the more unique Christmas Market clusters was the Weißerzauber – a row of beanie-selling and mulled wine-pouring tents.

At the end of the row of stalls was a tiny ferris wheel. Of course, we ended up atop it.

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Out the other side of the ferris wheel you could look over part of Hamburg’s harbour.

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Aimee tracked down some Dutch pancakes to enjoy on the way to Hamburg’s main Christmas Market.

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This market is located just outside of the Hamburg Rathaus (town hall). This 19th-century building is the seat of the Government of Hamburg.

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We decided to pause for a drink with this guy at a nearby group of stalls which weren’t yet closing.

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And before I end this day of the blog, I’d like to give a shout out to Gary Butland (my grandfather). It’s his birthday today. As one of the most loyal followers of this blog (and always the first to read it, so he claims), I couldn’t be happier that he gets to spend the day with my family on the Gold Coast.

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Day 287 (22nd of December 2016) – Hamburg, Germany

A couple of hours of tutoring in the morning provided the dough for what the day would inevitably turn into – shopping. After passing a lot of closed stores yesterday because it was too late, we promised ourselves that we would go out to explore Hamburg’s commercial centre a little more this morning. It didn’t last long, though. As per usual, our attempt at shopping was trumped by our appetites.

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Our foray into shopping continued after lunch with a visit back to Weißerzauber for a day view of the harbour.

We used this as the path back to one of the inner-city markets for some more of Aim’s favourite Dutch Pancakes.

The armed police were notably out in force and big concrete blocks lined every Christmas Market – understandable given the recent Berlin attack.

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With our stomachs well filled, we headed towards the “Miniatur Wunderland” where we had reserved tickets in advance. This model railway display is the largest of its kind in the world and flogs all of the other attractions in the city on TripAdvisor.

The walk there was one of my favourite of the trip. We passed through the Speicherstadt (Warehouse District). Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, this free trade area is the largest warehouse district in the world where the buildings stand on oak logs. The warehouses dip into the canal below.

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My images don’t quite do it justice, so here’s one from Wikipedia which gives an indication of what we saw.

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Inside Miniatur Wunderland, it wasn’t long until we found ourselves gawking at the 1,490m² model. All in perfect scale, this model depicts nine regions: Knuffingen (a fictitious city), Harz, the Alps and Austria, Hamburg, Hamburg Airport, America, Scandinavia, Switzerland and Italy.

With the overhead lights oscillating between day and night, we made our way through the displays. We spotted a number of places we’d visited on this trip, including Neuschwanstein Castle outside of Munich.

Bridges went above our heads and trains crossed underneath the glass flooring while we peered carefully at the impeccable accuracy of each of the models.

I had two favourite parts of the model. One of them was Scandinavia. As the region we’re visiting next, it’s the thing I’m most anticipating. But on top of this, Scandinavia (particularly Lapland and Iceland) have always been the top of my bucket list. Childhood dreaming while flicking through National Geographic books immediately came back to me while looking at this display. It even had a functioning port where ships were controlled in real bodies of water.

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My other favourite section was Hamburg Airport. Everything was functioning – the passengers arriving at the airport, the arrivals/departures screens, the planes taking off an landing, you name it. For all I could tell, I was a giant standing over the real Hamburg Airport.

The planes going down the runway intelligently matched the flight information board. Take a look in this video at what it was like.

At the top of the exhibition was one of the more impressive parts of the whole visit, but it wasn’t part of the model. In fact, it was the control centre for the trains and planes. A real, functioning one where people were employed to make the model run to schedule and without any accidents.

Still in disbelief, we made our way to an Italian restaurant with plenty of gluten-free options for dinner.

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During our evening commute, we passed by something which Aimee had been seeking for some time: her last name in another language. It turns out that “Kippen” means “chicken” in Dutch, but unfortunately we didn’t track down any use of the word while in the country. But all was not lost. Her name appeared in the most appropriate of locations in Hamburg.

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A rubbish bin. Very unfortunate, but an achievement finding the name nonetheless.

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Day 288 (23rd of December 2016) – Copenhagen, Denmark

It was Christmas Eve Eve, and I realised that I had to start Christmas shopping (relevant). I had been eyeing something for Aimee, and headed out on my own to pick it up, passing some stellar views of the harbour on the way.

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With our early afternoon train delayed by almost an hour, we had nothing to do but loiter at the station and follow people’s instructions for changing platforms and changing delays. Literally not a single regional train which we had caught in Germany on our whole trip had been on time. The complete antithesis of the stereotype.

Eventually we boarded and were on our way to Copenhagen. Check out the route.

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Along the way, we occupied ourselves with blogging, reading and obsessing over the weather. If there’s been one disappointment on this holiday amongst an innumerable amount of pleasant surprises, it’s been the lack of snow. Normally, you would have expected that one of our destinations so far would have been dusted in a nice layer of snow. It would have perfected the Christmas Markets, that’s for sure. Most annoyingly, a lot of the places we’ve been to have snowed just after we’ve left.

The bad news was that it wasn’t looking like it would snow in Copenhagen over Christmas. The good news, though, was that it was dumping in Finland and Iceland (where we would be heading in just over a week). Furthermore, the ski resort we’re heading to next month isn’t looking half bad. Good November snow has stayed due to the cold temperatures, although no new “pow” has been added in the last month. We’ll just have to hope that it comes before we get there.

While we were looking into this, our train rolled to a halt. We checked our phones and realised that we were on the coast of Germany, facing towards the collection of islands that make up Denmark. An announcement came through the train saying that the next ferry was in a few minutes.

Aimee and I looked at each other confused.

I guess we had thought that there would be a tunnel or bridge. But oh well. We would have to board the ferry and change trains.

But then our train kept on rolling.

We found ourselves on what looked like a road with trucks and cars parked alongside us.

And then came the announcement to disembark the train. We had joked things like “imagine if the train went on the ferry” just a few minutes ago, and now that was exactly what was happening.

You should’ve seen Aimee’s face as we walked atop the ferry to find a fully functioning shopping mall, Starbucks and all. In fact, I captured it on camera.

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Aimee got stuck right into the shopping. We couldn’t leave without having said that we bought something aboard a boat in no-mans-land between Germany and Denmark.

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We also found our way to the deck to wish Germany goodbye for the last time as we sailed north, deeper into the cold.

We were still in disbelief that our train was on the ferry when we were told to return to the vehicle since we were arriving. From there, it was another few hours to Copenhagen Central Station.

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Like every new city, we struggled at first with the ticketing system until we eventually worked out how to get to our hotel. A short stay at Hotel Kong Arthur was Aimee’s parents’ very generous Christmas gift to the two of us for our holiday together. They certainly did much better at picking a hotel than I ever would have.

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My favourite part was the lobby. The hotel is an old apprentice residence from 1882. The building is majestically secluded in the back of the cobblestoned alley, alongside the inner lakes of Copenhagen. The lobby pays tribute to this with its cozy couches and fireplace. Standing to welcome you as you enter the area is a set of real knight’s armour adorned with a Santa hat for Christmas.

We couldn’t gawk for too long because our hunger was getting the better of us. Near the hotel was a restaurant called “Sticks & Sushi” which served what has to be the best sushi I’ve eaten all year. The waiters all spoke impeccable British English and guided us through the food with passion.

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Though the bill gave us a bit of a shock, we had already braced ourselves with the knowledge that Denmark is an expensive country. Just to confirm it, I bought an AU$8 chocolate bar on the way home… The good news is that we knew of Scandinavia’s prices and our plan to end up here for a year in advance, and as a result we came with enough money to facilitate an enjoyable and stress-free holiday.

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Day 289 (24th of December 2016) – Copenhagen, Denmark

What a wonderful Christmas Eve morning.

The sky was blue and the air was crisp, so we emerged from our hotel for a cold Winter’s walk as early as the sun rose. It was a ghost town. No people, no cars, no shops. In Denmark, Christmas Eve is considered a more significant occasion than Christmas Day. Everybody was likely cosy-ing up in their homes by the fire. But not Aim and I (yet).

On the way, we had fun observing the shop signs and laughing about the obscurities of the  Danish language. What I don’t get is how in Denmark, they don’t erase or fix mistakes on signs. Instead, they just cross the errors out.

We were heading towards Amalienborg. This is the home of the Danish Royal Family, and as such it is here that the Crown Princess Mary (the Australian) occasionally resides. The 1760 Palace has been frequently used by the Royal Family ever since the fire at the main Christiansborg Palace in 1794, and therefore it remains one of the more significant monuments of the Danish capital.

On the way to the Amalienborg, we passed by a number of other interesting places.

We saw some armed guards were marching across a compound’s entrance while having a friendly chat.

And Kongens Have, which had some wonderful tree-lined paths for walking and, most importantly, photo backdrops.

dsc01921dsc01930And then, by complete accident, we passed by the guards marching towards the palace for the midday changeover.

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But, as Aimee rightfully noted, it was much more a “march of the tourists” rather than a “march of the guards”.

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The men eventually arrived in Amalienborg on time at noon to execute the “changing of the guard”.

Most of the ceremony involved the two lines of guards facing each other and exchanging positions one-by-one.

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We followed some of the splinter groups to the smaller guard posts for a more intimate view at how the tradition played out.

After the novelty of the guards had subsided, we left the spectacle to walk around the city centre square of the palace. The palace consists of four identical classical palace façades with rococo interiors around an octagonal courtyard.

In the centre of the square is a monumental equestrian statue of Amalienborg’s founder, King Frederick V.

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After spotting the odd structure on Google Maps during our planning of the day, Aimee led me to “Kastellet”.

screen-shot-2016-12-28-at-11-34-11-pmKastellet is one of the best preserved star fortresses in Northern Europe. It is constructed in the form of a pentagram with bastions at its corners. Kastellet was continuous with the ring of bastioned ramparts which used to encircle Copenhagen which is mostly gone today.

Reading up on this information, I quickly realised that I didn’t have the slightest idea of what a “star fortress” was. It turns out that it’s a fortification in a style that evolved during the age of gunpowder when the cannon came to dominate the battlefield. It was first used in the defence of Pisa, Italy in 1500.

It wasn’t long of a walk until we reached the waterway surrounding the compound.

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There was no shortage of wildlife, either.

Inside of the fort were “The Rows”.

The Rows are six two-storey terraces which were originally built as barracks for the soldiers based at the Citadel.

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Possibly one of my favourite photos of the trip here. True smiles!

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Other buildings we saw in the fort included the Commander’s House.

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The North Gate.

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And views of the city beyond the fort.

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From here, we regrouped over a bag of lollies and wandered towards a TripAdvisor cheap eat in the city centre.

“Slices of San Francisco”, it was called.

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Following lunch, we thought it best to return to the hotel and celebrate Christmas Eve Copenhagen style – out of the cold. We wound away much of the afternoon in our room and soaking up the warmth of the hotel lobby. It’s odd being away from family on a Christmas Eve – it really requires effort to create a holiday spirit. But eventually, we got our act together. Carols, Christmas food and anticipation over each other’s presents were key ingredients.

The night wasn’t all tradition, though. We broke from the norm by making our Christmas Even Dinner Chinese. Sure, it wasn’t either of our first preferences. But, some naïvety over the availability of restaurants left us with little option.

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The restaurant was small but bustling – a line went out the door. We were glad we had our booking sorted. The food was excellent. Solid, authentic Chinese. Aimee loved it too. I was surprised by how much it made me miss my diet while in China.

Back at the hotel, a Christmas movie was in order. But, unlike the restless nights of our youth on Christmas Eve, we ended up falling asleep quite early.

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Day 290 (25th of December 2016) – Copenhagen, Denmark

Merry Christmas. What a cozy view to exit our rooms to – straight down into the hotel lobby.

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Aimee rushed over and woke me like a child on Christmas Morning (I guess we still are children on Christmas Morning). She woke me up first for this selfie…

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…and then for the exchange of gifts. I liked our Christmas Morning. It wasn’t flash or showy. We didn’t end up with piles of gifts in our respective corners of the room. The gifts were meaningful and given for the right reasons.

I was first up, it seemed. I put on my best “present-receiving face” while Aimee handed her gifts to me. Meanwhile, I was trying to decipher the hidden meaning of each one.

A jar of chocolate. Maybe she thinks I’m too skinny? Does she want to fatten me up?

A street food cookbook. Definitely a back-handed compliment there. A simultaneous encouragement of embracing my foodie side whilst also reminding me that I can’t cook.

A “would you rather” card game. Possibly a shot at my questionable decision-making skills?

A book on Monopoly strategy and history. Definitely complementing me there. Aim’s had her fair share of losing to me in the greatest board game of all time.

I joke, but they were all very wonderful and thoughtful gifts. Aim is one of those people who buys things for somebody whenever they make her think of that person. As a result, I’m always treated by a collection of small things come a gift-giving period.

My gift-giving, on the other hand, is significantly more lazy (but I hope no less meaningful). I keep note of what Aim looks at in shops, and then snap something up the day before Christmas as a guarantee that she’ll like it.

It sounds like it’s poor form, but this particular gift I was really happy with. I bought her a new coat for her travels – one that’s a completely different style to her usual one. Here’s a pic of it on a far less good-looking girl.

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With the gift-giving done, we proceeded down to breakfast where I managed to spill my coffee all over the table.

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And then, it was off to Frederiksberg Runddel for a Christmas ice skate. Aim and I ice skated back in 2012 when we were first getting to know each other. Back then she outclassed me, but this was my time to show that I’d improved.

The scene at the rink was set.

Aim made a few early excuses about the rugged terrain being different from her “home ground” at Macquarie, but before long we were skating at the same level. The skate quickly turned from a competition to absolute amazement at what we were doing: skating together on Christmas Day in Copenhagen, Denmark. Who would’ve thought we’d make it here, let alone together. Back when we met in 2012, I’d be surprised if either of us had known that Copenhagen was even in Denmark. It was truly surreal.

We were having lots of fun enjoying the moment. Aim’s wearing her new coat in this video, and I’m stuffed full of my new chocolates.

That hour was the highlight of the trip to date.


After a bit of online investigation the night before, we found out that a nearby Shawerma grill was one of the few places open on Christmas Day, and so we made our way there for lunch. We decided to make our main meal of Christmas Day dinner instead of lunch as a break from tradition, but also to accommodate for the activities we had in mind and to allow for a nice rounding off to the Christmas period.

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The afternoon was spent at Tivoli Gardens. This famous amusement park opened in 1843 and is the oldest operating amusement park in the world. With 4.7 million visitors in 2015, Tivoli is the second-most popular seasonal theme park in the world and the most-visited theme park in Scandinavia.

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So how did it stack up? This is the sort of theme park you can go to, not go on any of the rides, and still leave happy.

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One of the nicest things about the park was how much its focus was also on the gardens within.

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I imprinted on a gaggle of geese and soon had them all following me.

By far the most enjoyable part of the park was when we decided to go to the bar Nimb, copping their $10 Jasmine Teas for their seven-foot fireplace.

In Danish they have a world called “hygge”. It’s a famous word, particularly because of how unique it is. English doesn’t have an appropriate translation. The only language which is considered to have an equivalent is Norweigan, and it uses the exact same word. Hygge is a feeling, a social atmosphere, and an action at the same time. It is something nice, cozy, safe and known. But it shouldn’t be considered a synonym for “cozy”, because it’s not just a physical state. It’s a psychological state too – one where all our psychological needs are in balance.

Collins English Dictionary named “hygge” the runner-up (after Brexit) as word of the year in the UK in 2016. I’ve started using it myself – it’s a great word.

It was in this room that Aimee and I achieved hygge. The ultimate Christmas Day cosiness. Jasmine tea, fire, silence, warmth… hygge.

Another highlight of the trip. Two in one day. Both on Christmas.

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By the time we left, it was dark and the Christmas lights were sparkling even more than they were before.

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We arrived in perfect time for our booking at ‘the italian’ which was our choice of venue for Christmas Day dinner. The restaurant was stunning: cosy, warm, and with food which looked delectable. It wasn’t long until we were back on the street, though. A bit of a stuff-up in our research (and the restaurant breaking their promise) had meant that there didn’t end up being any viable options for Aim’s diet outside of a salad, and we figured that we’d try our luck somewhere else to find something more substantive to eat. We couldn’t believe our bad luck after the next two restaurants put us back in the exact same position. Getting unbearably hungry, we settled on the Shawerma again. Sometimes you have no choice!

Following the kebab, I pushed for us to head out to one last sight before our departure from the city tomorrow. The place is called “Nyhavn”, a 17th-century waterfront, canal and entertainment district. I had dreamed of visiting it ever since coming across this photo online.

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Lined by brightly coloured 17th and early 18th century townhouses and historical wooden ships, this boulevard was as (if not more) beautiful in the evening.

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We enjoyed one last walk down a historical Copenhagen street before returning to our hotel for the evening and to finish our Christmas movie over a nice drink.

If you’d allow me to be mushy for a moment: it was the perfect end to a perfect Christmas. Hopefully that’s been evident to you in the smiles on our faces.

Until next time,
Xavier.

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