LATVIA - The Friendly Country
I spent a few days in Latvia to celebrate my birthday. It started with a drive in the countryside outside Riga to Malpils Manor for dinner. Jamie Oliver recommended it and I was not disappointed in the fillet of venison, followed by milk fed lamb and a couple of gorgeous desserts with champagne. I stayed in the Old Town which is UNESCO listed and did sightseeing tours around the city then went to the Opera house for "Il Trovotore" with an outstanding performance by the mezzo. This opera house is small and very civilised with quick service and spacious dining areas for the intermissions. Next day I drove up the coast which was wild landscape with some forest areas.
COPENHAGEN: A city of babies and bicycles
There were about 20 baby carriages lined up outside my gym this morning. Inside, I have become accustomed to seeing babies gurgling on the floor while their yummy mummies exercise beside them.
Danes do child rearing very well and generous government benefits for new mothers include one year’s paid leave with a guaranteed job when they return to work plus a lifetime of free education and free health for each child. Children in university are paid 5900 Danish kroner each month to attend university so it will come as no surprise that many Danes have masters degrees.
Who wouldn’t stay at university when paid to do so, particularly when there are masters degrees offered in “Shoes and Handbags”. I kid you not. When I applied to lecture part time at the university in Copenhagen I scanned the curriculum and found that course offering. My husband is working in Denmark because there is a shortage of qualified engineers. I guess it is much easier to get a degree in bartending than engineering and certainly makes one’s university years more fun.
Back to the babies; why does the government encourage a high birth rate? Well there has to be another generation to pay the high tax rate that pays for the educational and health benefits and the 25% VAT (Value Added Tax) also has to be paid. Yes, everything you buy in Denmark whether it is groceries, cosmetics, and clothes or going out to dinner, has a 25% tax added to your bill. A cup of coffee at most cafes costs AUD $7 and that is when you pay up front at the cash register, find your own table and a staff member delivers it to you. Hiring costs make it too expensive to hire enough staff to offer table service when you enter. If you buy a car you pay 180 per cent tax, which brings us to the bicycles.
Whether it is the astronomical cost for a car that there are so many bicycles, I never tire of seeing beautiful, happy children sitting in the little open box in the front of their parent’s bicycle. But the number of Danes who smoke while riding bicycles eschews the health notion. Apart from the pleasure of seeing a road filled with bicycles in the middle of the city another upside to living in a city of bicycles is the quiet. I live in the centre of the city and it is often as quiet as living in the country; all because there are so few cars, particularly at evenings and weekends.
Bicycles definitely rule here and heaven help the motorist or pedestrian who gets in their way. Many bikes are abandoned on public streets for months at a time, probably because there is no fine imposed for abandoning one’s bike. This means bikes parked at my front door, in front of cafes I am trying to enter and department store entrances become an obstacle course. As Copenhagen is a very windy city, there are days when so many bicycles are knocked over by the wind it is virtually impossible to navigate around them and I have to walk on the street dodging oncoming cars. But I prefer these problems to the different problems presented by the vast number of cars on the roads in many other cities around the world.
HALLOWEEN AT TIVOLI GARDENS IN COPENHAGEN
I was in Cannes in January 2015 for the Unity Demonstration for Charlie after the terror attacks.
PATAGONIA: A Land of Wild Beauty
Patagonia, visually spectacular, covers 1 million square kilometres and is our planet’s least populated region. Its vast wilderness is part of its allure and this also makes it a logistical challenge. I chose internal flights to see as much of this region discovered by Ferdinand Magellan in 1520 during my five-week visit to Argentina that boasts 15 UNESCO heritage-listed sites.
Los Glaciares National Park
To visit Glacier Perito Moreno, one of the world’s most recognizable and magnificent glaciers we drove 1.5 hours from El Calafate. This was the highlight of my visit. Being so close, surrounded by a wall of ice of both side was overwhelmingly beautiful.
Península Valdés in Patagonia is a site of global significance for the conservation of marine mammals. With more than 1,500 specimens visiting the area annually Peninsula Valdes contains the globally most important breeding grounds of the Southern Right Whale, a species that had severely suffered from commercial whaling.
Historically, the Southern Right Whale population had almost collapsed due to excessive whaling but eventually its global protection was achieved in 1935. Southern Sea Lion was also heavily hunted for oil and skins on the peninsula, legally until 1953 and illegally into the 1970s. The populations of both species have responded to the conservation measures with impressive recoveries.
The world’s southernmost city, Ushuaia is nestled between the snow-capped Andean mountains of Argentina and the portal to Antarctica and the shores of the
Beagle Channel. There are forests of lush algae, leopard seals and delicious ing crabs and lamb cooked in front of an open fire.
We arrived on a beautiful sunny day and were driven down remote, dusty roads long enough to wonder where we were headed until the cityscape and a clutch of
smarter homes then the bay waterfront signalled our arrival at Puerto Madryn.
Next morning we drove in a small van through a thorny desert steppe for a couple of hours to the park hosting the largest colonies of Magellanic penguins. We ambled
for a couple of kilometres only feet from penguins coddling their eggs, teaching their child to sing, some hiding under shrubs. At the end of the boardwalk we watch
penguins frolic in the water and sunbathe on the sand before driving back, past Guanacos, the forefathers of Llama.
Lago Frías is derived from the Spanish term “cold,” which aptly describes the lake’s chilly waters, originating from glacial melt and mountain streams. The pristine green waters surrounded by dense forests and towering mountains are a photographer’s dream. We went from Bariloche where we stayed in town.
ICELAND- A Land of Fire and Ice
I returned to Iceland this summer and couldn’t wait to see white smoke billowing from geothermal hot springs, the dazzling white glaciers on mountainsides and volcanoes that seemed poised to erupt and the moss-covered lava fields. I drove around the main island in a couple of weeks but next time will stay longer to savour the ravishing and unique beauty of this tiny country.
First stop was Reykjavik (which translates to “Smokey Bay”) the northernmost capital city in the world with less than 200,000 inhabitants. I started at the expressionist-style Hallgrimskirkja Church then strolled past houses built in the 1700s, and up to Rainbow street that heralds how Iceland is considered one of the most LGBTQ-friendly countries in the world.
After a stop at the country’s most famous waterfall, Skogafoss I drove on to the small Eyjafjallajokull Glacier for a short stop before our first overnight stop at Vik, the warmest place in Iceland. Here I walked on the Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach and I was happy to enjoy my first regional restaurant at Sudur Vik before an early start next morning.
Vatnajokull Glacier was the next highlight and I began to realize that sightseeing in Iceland is more relaxing than tourist attractions in Europe and the US. In Iceland I was able to park metres from the attraction and because most attractions were free of charge I just parked, walked over, enjoyed the spectacular site and could stay as long as I wished without the sense of being overwhelmed by tourists.
My favourite visit was a whaling trip at Husavik but first I walked at the Jukulsargljufur National Park one of the country’s most dramatic river canyon 24 kilometres long. Just next to Husavik I walked around Akureyri the largest town outside of Reyjkavik where I lingered in the colourful botanical garden. After a whale watching boat trip I walked up the hill to the Husavikurkirkha church built in 1907.
The most dramatic driving experience was along the west coast and it felt like visiting a land before time, with geological features and bird species outnumbering humans.
The scenery of craggy cliffs, waterfalls, lava fields, ice caps and moonscape had now settled into my psyche. Because the roads were so well kept and highway signage is clear and thorough, and because there were hours when I seemingly drove alone with only the occasional car behind me I wished I had booked a few extra days.
Next time, yes I will definitely make my third trip to this remarkable country, I will stay longer, meet locals at the local steaming hot spring pools and just let this friendly, welcoming country wash over me.