London Vacation

Spent five happy days in London as a birthday present for myself. Urban vacations are so much more fun now with Google Maps! And a cotton tote bag was my entire luggage.

  • Desertfest 2022, a three-day doom metal festival in Camden Town. Well organised, good venues in fun surroundings, enthusiastic musicians, friendly and polite audience. There were about 80 bands to choose from, most of them quite obscure. I heard at least a few songs by 14 bands, but I only really enjoyed five: 1000 Mods (Greece), Earthless (California), Elephant Tree (UK), Parish (UK), Truckfighters (Sweden). My main complaints about the other nine bands was a) a lack of variation in tempo and loudness, b) tortured screaming. Part Chimp made me curious to hear some of their recordings, but their gig was so loud that I had to flee.
  • Visited Cousin E who is studying maths at Imperial College, going to lots of classical concerts, playing the piano, playing Magic the Gathering, making friends and generally enjoying life!
  • Enjoyed Regent’s Park, Hyde Park, Kensington Gardens, Battersea Park and (for the first time) the magnificent Kew Gardens with its Victorian glass houses.
  • Checked out the little UCL Art Museum, the Museum of Freemasonry and the overwhelmingly vast Victoria & Albert Museum.
  • Visited book stores and DVD stores: FOPP, Forbidden Planet, Waterstones Piccadilly, Foyle’s, Skoob Books. Bought a single book and three DVDs, about which more in future blog entries. Strictly stuff that I can’t get easily online.
  • Bought a cap at Laird for this autumn.
  • Drank lots of tea and had many nice meals.
  • Stayed in a tiny worn room at an affordable hotel, conveniently located near Paddington Station, with nice breakfasts.
  • Walked a lot, rode the subway, rode a double decker bus.


View from Östra Ingersby towards a neighbouring hamlet

A bit more than two years ago I learned that my surname and patrilineage are from the Fryksdalen area in Värmland province. The family had forgotten all about this, probably as a result of my great grandpa and my grandpa both dying young. (My people migrated to Stockholm around 1900 from all over southern Sweden, so Fryksdalen has contributed only 1/16 of my stock.)

This past weekend my wife and I took a trip to Fryksdalen to see the landscape around my ancestors’ hamlets — Persby and Östra Ingersby in Sunne parish, Svenserud and Bävik in Östra Ämtervik parish – and the churches where they celebrated their rites of passage. Turns out it’s a beautiful area, hilly to an extent that surprised me, being effectively the southern foothills of the great Scandy mountain range.

In addition to seeing the ancestral spots, we swam two of three Fryken lakes, took a guided tour of classic author Selma Lagerlöf’s home at Mårbacka, survived the crushing psychedelic art overload that is the Alma Löv Museum, and participated in Farmer’s Day at Gunnerud. Tractor racing, an informative study visit to 200 milch cows and roasted oat-flour pancakes with diced bacon! I also read a celebrated novel set in Sunne by Göran Tunström, Berömda män som varit i Sunne (1998) .

Here’s a photo album that will give you an idea of what the area is like.

Lake Övre Fryken

John Massey Eats At Albergue 1601 in Macau


A restaurant review by Aard regular John Massey. Macau is an old Portuguese colony on the southern coast of China.

Albergue has numerous translations, which include “hostel” and “refuge”. “Refuge” is now a suitable translation for Albergue 1601, hidden within the quiet and peaceful historic St Lazarus Quarter with its mostly pedestrian-only thoroughfares, away from the hectic, modern, polluted awfulness and tawdry, glitzy casinos of much of modern Macao. But it is more likely to have carried the original meaning of “hostel”.

It must be accessed on foot up the sloping, decoratively cobbled, pedestrian-only Calcada da Igreja de S. Lazaro. The temptation to follow interesting-looking side diversions along narrow streets in this area is hard to resist, but luncheon beckons. Albergue 1601 is a small establishment, and advance reservations are strongly recommended. Exploring the area would be better done afterwards to walk off the excesses of lunch, when getting hopelessly lost is more in the category of fun than minor disaster, provided you remembered to visit the lavatorio before leaving the restaurant.


Albergue 1601 is not confined to one building. In various capacities it occupies one- and two-storey, well preserved heritage buildings on three sides of a small plaza, which is now dominated by two very large camphor trees which dwarf the buildings. The entrance gateway to the plaza occupies the fourth side.

You can be forgiven for missing the entrance gateway. The legend across the top of the gateway reads SANTA CASA DA MISERICÓRDIA ALBERGUE, but this is now rendered illegible by encroaching vegetation, which no one seems to be in a hurry to remove. The small but conspicuous billboard planted beside the roadway gave the location away, though, or we would probably have walked straight past it.


Once inside the gateway, we had the difficult task of identifying the entrance to the restaurant. It wasn’t easy, being virtually invisible and with nothing to advertise its presence. You might suspect they are trying to keep it a secret, and maybe they are. I certainly hope so – this is the sort of place you want to keep to yourself, for fear of it being overrun by bloated, over-zealous, Instagramming gluttons.

It turned out to be this nondescript little doorway:


Once inside we were invited to sit on welcoming giant leather sofas that are so worn that they appear to have provided a welcome resting place for the backsides of foot-weary travellers for hundreds of years, and probably have, while the staff located our reservation and then beckoned us up a very narrow and rather creaky old wooden staircase to our table, with a pleasant view overlooking the small plaza. We had the small room to ourselves, the seating was very comfortable, the table well and tastefully appointed, with an array of salt and pepper grinders, some particularly fine olive oil and a bottle of vinegar. Service was efficient, pleasant, polite, knowledgeable, quick without rushing and unobtrusive, just the way it should be but frequently is not. As soon as it was clear that we had finished with one course, the next course arrived promptly.

The menu is extensive to the point of confusion and indecision, but we worked our way through it, while our server delivered excellent bread piping hot and accompanied by small dishes of delicious black olive paste with which the sharpen the appetite, if it needed any sharpening. My wife and daughter studiously ignored my advice to choose one of several bacalhau (dried and salted cod) dishes for which Macao is renowned.

There is no need to fear language difficulty with the menu – we were presented with the English version of menus without needing to ask. For starters, I chose the gambas à guilho (garlic shrimps), while the girls ordered salada de polvo (octopus salad) and petingas fritas (baby sardines). Mine turned out to be five very well-sized prawns, shelled (so no messy fingers required) and smothered in an addictively delicious sauce that was adequately but not overwhelmingly garlicky. Having demolished the four prawns left to me after the girls had speared one to share between them, I could not stop myself from scooping up that delicious sauce and eating it spread on bread. I am not a big eater, and that one dish alone plus bread would have sufficed for my lunch. The girls reported that the octopus salad was bland and indifferent – certainly edible but not exciting, but they did very much like the sardines.

For mains, the girls chose the arroz de marisco (seafood risotto) and the secretos grelhados (grilled Iberico pork shoulder). I superfluously ordered the vegetais salteados (garlic mixed vegetables), not realising it was not a side dish. The seafood risotto was easily enough for two, and the girls went about demolishing it very happily and pronounced it to be superb. When cooked with sufficient liquid, the Portuguese strain of rice becomes creamy, and it came chock full of crustacea, shellfish and pieces of fish. My dish of garlic mixed vegetables was embarrassingly very large – the vegetables were delicious and excellent in variety, but I could hardly make a dent in them. The pork shoulder was very tasty but a bit on the chewy side; it came with good parsley mashed potatoes.

We had ordered far too much food for lunch for three, but no matter – the staff obligingly put the pork shoulder, mashed potatoes and garlic vegetables into leakproof plastic boxes for us to carry back to Hong Kong to have for dinner when we got home, too tired to cook, which we duly did.

For dessert, out of curiosity I not could resist ordering the serradura (sawdust icecream pudding), and the girls decided to share a pêra bêbeda (drunken pear poached in port wine). My serradura came as a nicely decorated and suitably modest serving (rather than the diabetes-inducing monstrosity you would be likely to get in the USA or Australia), so once the girls had each stolen their sample spoonful to try, I had no difficulty at all finishing the rest. It was delicately flavoured and excellent. My wife declared the dark purple Poached Pear to be VERY ALCOHOLIC!!! (well, the name did sort of warn her it might be), but I noticed that between the two of them, the girls had no difficulty in consuming all of it, and not too much difficulty walking afterwards.

I rounded out my excellent lunch with what was, without question, the best cup of coffee I have ever had in Macao, which means one of the best cups of coffee I have ever had anywhere. Macao puts Hong Kong to shame when it comes to coffee. Daughter stole a sip and agreed with my assessment, and she knows a thing or two about coffee. She and Wife had tea, which they confirmed was indeed nice tea, but unexceptional.

In all (remembering that we drank only a bottle of mineral water with lunch, not wine), the bill came to MOP$ 1130 (USD 140, €124, SEK 1290; the Macao pataca is pegged to the HK$ at the rate of HK$1 to MOP$1.03) – not cheap, but not overly pricey either, and after all this is definitely a “high end” restaurant. And we had ordered enough food for two meals for three people.

After lunch, my curiosity drew me to the other side of the small plaza, where I discovered the Albergue 1601 gift shop, a beautifully appointed small shop selling various canned Portuguese comestibles, special soaps made in Portugal, myriad bottles of mysterious substances for ladies to put on themselves and a confusing array of other things that I couldn’t very well take in – besides, we were travelling very light, so I wasn’t up for buying anything, although I wouldn’t have minded. Next door was a gallery, which was under renovation when we were there – I poked my head in far enough to see that it was a sizeable, uncluttered and very pleasant, well lit space, which I presume is for local artists to display their paintings and sculpture, before one of the tradesmen doing the renovating invited me to remove myself again in a not overly polite manner. Fair enough.


We did all remember to visit the lavatorio before leaving, me struggling to lock and unlock the antique wooden door with its clunky wooden latch, which presented no such problems to my wife and daughter – and I’m the one who is supposed to be an engineer! Even the lavatorio was a pleasant enough experience, though – spotlessly clean and fragrant.

So then, there was nothing else for us to do but head off down the hill, wishing we had time to go poking down all of the fascinating looking side streets, and looking for somewhere we could catch a taxi to take us to the Outer Harbour in time to catch the TurboJet back to Hong Kong, a trip that takes almost exactly one hour pier to pier.

Would I go back to Albergue 1601 again? Yes, in a minute. I give it top marks for food, presentation, service, ambience, physical setting, and anything else a restaurant can get marks for. I am enthusiastic enough about it that I would post something on their Facebook page to praise the place, but I’m kind of trying to keep it a secret. I doubt I will succeed.

Which reminds me – their Facebook page contains their menu:

Norbert Jacques Honeymooning on the Yangtze River in 1912

Chinesischen Fluss
The first edition of Jacques’s Yangtze travelogue

I picked up a beautiful edition of an interesting book at the Alfa Antikvariat closure sale in early February. It’s the Swedish edition of Norbert Jacques’s 1921 travelogue Auf dem Chinesischen Fluss, “On the Chinese River”. The Swedish version is titled På långfärd och fest bland kineser, “Travelling far and feasting among the Chinese”. It has not been translated into English. Chinese, I don’t know.

Jacques (1880-1954) was a prolific writer, screenwriter and journalist from Luxemburg. He’s mainly known today for his creation Dr. Mabuse, the villain of three Fritz Lang movies. His legacy is tainted by propaganda that he wrote for the Nazis around age 65 toward the end of WW2, but he wasn’t sincerely invested in Nazism. In fact, his wife for 26 years was the Austrian Jewess Margerite Samuely, and they had two daughters. Jacques’ 1917 novel Piraths Insel features a love affair between a European man and a Pacific Islander woman. And as we shall see, Jacques appreciated Chinese women too. According to Volker Stotz, he managed to be “inconvenient” first to the Nazis, and then to the Anti-Nazi post-war world.

In 1911 the Chinese Empire came to an end in the Xinhai Revolution. The following year, Norbert and Margerite got married and went on a 16-month honeymoon to China, Peru and Australia. The book I’ve read details their trip up the Yangtze River from Shanghai to Chongqing in the autumn and winter of 1912-13. I don’t know why it took eight years for Jacques to publish his account. Of course WW1 must have played a part, but he did manage to publish eleven other books in the interim, including the first Dr. Mabuse novel!

Jacques’s attitude to the Chinese and their culture is complicated, both patronising and slightly awestruck, and certainly intensely curious. Occasionally he waxes lyrical over some vista or building, but he mainly sticks to describing interesting sites and social situations. Me and my wife laughed and cringed though at Jacques’s extremely exoticising and romantic 2½ page description of a young Chinese woman whom he stalked through the alleyways of an unnamed town on 7 December.

“The secret of the Oriental eyes conjured up the riddle of the Oriental Schoß to my imagination, and I followed the foreign one, bound by magic to this coral of the Sichuan town as if under a spell. … A single wish to see, to feel – and then suffer the pain of her insoluble ties to the land and people of the East – To be a melancholy, chaste knight, seeking the path to the Holy Land, pierced by manhood’s eternal never-satisfied longing. Body and soul crucified on the tree of racial separation.”

Jacques went through the Three Gorges, describing lots of places that are now under water. Identifying exactly where he stopped though is complicated. On the one hand it’s made easy by him travelling by river boat all the way to Chongqing. None of the places he visits is far from the river. But on the other hand the identification is made difficult by language. Jacques doesn’t speak or read much Chinese, and the locals don’t speak the national standard Beijing dialect, putonghua. So the names of villages and towns that he records are in local dialects, transcribed by ear by someone from Luxemburg, according to High German orthography. And in the past century, many of the names have changed. This would all have been impossible for me to understand without the aid of Google Earth and Wikipedia. And since there is no map in the Swedish edition I’m reading, I guess most readers at the time would simply have had no idea where in China the guy was.

For example, early in the book the honeymooners go up the “Jangtse” from “Hankau” (Hankou, a precinct in modern Wuhan) to “Jotschau” (modern Yueyang), where they take off up the major tributary “Siangkiang” (Xiangjiang) for an extended stay in “Tschangscha” (Changsha). Then they return downstream to Yuejang, but this time Jacques refers to it by the name of its harbour area “Tschenlingschi”, Chenglingji. There they turn left and continue up the Yangtze.

Here’s an interactive map of Jacques’s travels. Upstream from Fengxiang Gorge the stops become much more frequent. The book shifts from general description to diary form already at Yichang on 25 November, but only from 3 December, at Fengxiang, does Jacques acquire the habit of asking and recording what most places he visits are named. It’s clear that during final editing several years later in Germany, he can no longer identify small Chinese riverside towns whose names he may have heard only once and didn’t record.

I enjoyed the book, which offers a window into the astonishingly archaic China of 100 years ago. The Last Emperor has just been deposed and republican soldiers at city gates check to see that nobody who enters is still wearing the long braid of the former Manchu overlords. And in Changsha, perhaps Norbert Jacques bumps into a bookish teenager from the Fourth Normal School – a boy named Mao.

Snapshots of Dalmatia

Travertine-forming rapids in River Krka at Roški Slap

Here’s the photo album from my recent ten days on Croatia’s Dalmatian coast. Most pix are from the town of Šibenik, various spots in the River Krka national park, the island of Zlarin and the hills north-east of Šibenik.

Dalmatia is an excellent December destination for a quiet vacation with walks, photography and reading.


Ten Days In Hangzhou And Suzhou

smog och kanal
December smog over a Hangzhou canal

Yesterday the Rundkvists came home from ten days in China where we’ve been visiting with relatives. We spent eight days in my wife’s home city Hangzhou (pop. 8.0 million) and one day each in the city Suzhou (160 road km away, pop. 10.7 million) and the well-preserved little canal town Zhouzhuang (150 road km away). I spent most of our stay walking and cycling around on my own or in the company of Cousin E who was also in HZ to see his parents & brother over the holidays. Check out my photo album! Here are some impressions.

  • Though I hardly saw any fellow westerners on my wanderings, HZ’s citizens have become used to seeing people like us. Hardly anyone shouted halou at me, evinced surprise at my strange looks and absurd height or wanted their pictures taken with me, compared to ten years ago.
  • HZ (but not Suzhou) is swamped with cheaply available public bikes belonging to about ten different firms. In order to use them as intended you need a local smartphone and/or bank account. I had neither, but I soon figured out that there are many serviceable bikes with damaged or incorrectly closed locks that anyone can use. Of course, I had to find the ones that let me adjust the height of the seat.
  • Gas-powered mopeds are forbidden in HZ and Suzhou. This extremely wise (draconian, dictatorial) measure has been in place for at least 20 years. Instead people ride electrical mopeds, which keeps the noise level that makes e.g. Hanoi almost intolerable down.
  • Chinese urban planners make no allowance for pedestrians who want to move through the city independently of where cars can go. There are extremely few pedestrian railway crossings. HZ’s newer residential blocks tend to be very large, gated and walled. Gatekeepers never stopped me when I entered a block, but then there was no exit through the wall in the direction I wanted to go. I lost lots of time on my walks trying to move in a straight line towards my destinations.
  • Open Street Map‘s app was extremely useful. I had my location on a detailed map of HZ at my fingertips for the first time. This app lets you download entire Chinese provinces in one go before you head out.
  • Even during these cold and drizzly days in the off-season, the tourist attractions saw healthy numbers of Chinese visitors. I read that during the season, these temple complexes, stately homes, museums, parks and formal gardens are simply packed with people. It’s strange to think that these places were largely created for a small parasitic elite of connoisseurs who made sure that common people had no access. And now that anyone can come and have a look, they show up in such numbers that commoners still can’t enjoy the sites at the time of year when they’re at their best.
  • The presentation of Chinese tourist attractions is largely garish, vulgar and commercial. Most of them are old-time Chinese Disneyland. Inside the Hanshan temple precinct in Suzhou, for instance, the oldest Buddha statue I saw is being used as decoration in the religious souvenir shop. Almost all standing buildings in these cities are recent. I don’t think I’ve seen a single structure older than 1800 in Hangzhou, though this is a special case as the town was torched by crazy millennarian Christian-inspired Taiping rebels in about 1850.
  • The celebrated vistas across HZ’s West Lake are largely obscured by air pollution.
  • Peripherally located tourist sites are far quieter and less commercial, for instance the terraced tea-growing valley of Meijiawu in the hills SW of the West Lake. Here the recently re-developed landscape park and minor religious complex of Yunqi is probably delightful on an early April morning.
  • When there is any public signage in a Western language, it is a small subset of the Chinese version, written in Chinglish (or in some cases even Engrish) by someone with a weak grasp of the language. In addition, the proofing errors often give the impression that the person who made the physical sign knows no English at all and has copied it one letter at a time. The Chinese are in fact sovereignly uninterested in whether foreigners understand these signs or perhaps laugh at the erratic and flowery word choices. The best sign I read was one in French at the entrance to the Shizi garden complex in Suzhou. Not only was it good French, it contained more information than the sign in Chinglish next to it.
  • In town, I like to avoid the tourist areas completely (which confuses my in-laws) and walk smaller, slightly run-down residential lanes and back streets. Here people hang their laundry to dry on the telephone wires next to large carps and pieces of pork curing in the polluted wind. Retirees haggle for fish and vegetables at the corner shops, and the little eateries’ staff clean dishes at an outdoor sink.
  • My greatest linguistic triumph was when I managed to explain to a restaurant owner that a cat was gnawing on the pork she had hung out to cure on a rack behind the building. Wei! Ni hao. Mao chi nimende gan rou. Nimende zhu rou. Though my vigourous pointing out back probably helped a lot. She thanked me and rushed to save her bacon.
  • A lot of the recent architecture is straight out of dystopian scifi movies: hyper-futuristic steel-and-glass skyscrapers that are lit up with digital animation after dark. We experienced a full-on colossal-scale 3D digital acid-trip at Life Plaza in SE HZ one evening, with laser-lit choreographed dancing fountains. As we left, reeling, we saw 30-story Disney characters dancing across the facades towards the river.

For more commentary on things Chinese, see Aard’s category tag for China.

Staying At An Invisible House

Swedish House, 1930s, from the N.

I’m back again at the Swedish Institute’s writer’s retreat in Kavala, Greece, finishing my Medieval castles book. By now I’ve spent a total of three weeks here, taking daily walks. And it’s annoyed me that I’ve never been able to see the place I stay at from street level. Such a Lovecraftian feel to it. Does the Swedish House, as it is known, even exist when I’m not there?

The building was finished in 1936. At that time the site was outside town in a commanding location, and the building was a comparatively tall one with its 2½ lofty floors. After the war, though, Kavala grew greatly and the Swedish House with its terraced garden became surrounded by taller, much uglier buildings. They’re in the way when you walk along the waterfront, so you see them and you see the mountainside behind the city, but you can’t see what’s immediately behind the newer structures from most directions.

Yesterday morning I went up onto the roof and looked around. I found an unimpeded view ESE towards the acropolic fortress in the Old Town, which is unsurprising because it is the city’s highest point. But I also found good sightlines to shoreline level toward the SW: the area immediately south of the municipal football field. So I took a picture of this view.

Fire station
Fire station seen from the roof of the Swedish House.

Today I grabbed an umbrella and walked down to the fire station on the other side of the football field. I failed to identify the Swedish House by eye in the chaotic jumble of later rooftops, but then, my eyes have no zoom capability. So I took a picture in the direction of the Swedish House, went back up and checked out the pic on the laptop. And look, I found it!

Swedish House
Swedish House, top floor, WNW face, seen from the front stairs of the fire station.

Swedish House, close-up from W.

Update, same evening: I borrowed a pair of binoculars and went down to the fire station again. I took this picture of the Swedish House from a vantage point some ways up the road from there, through the binocks.

Swedish House, top floor, WNW face, seen from a vantage point near the fire station.

WorldCon 75 in Helsinki

The 75th World Science Fiction Convention took place in Helsinki and seems to have had the second-highest attendance ever: more than 7000 people in the Messukeskus convention centre, 2000 of whom had (like myself) never attended a WorldCon before. There were 250 programme items only on the Friday between 10 am and 10 pm, so there is no way that I’ll be able to tell you everything that went on. (Check out the programme here.) Instead I’ll tell you the bits I enjoyed the most, plus some observations.

The WorldCon crowd was incredibly diverse even if you disregarded the cosplayers. Men and women and trans folks, old and young, white and brown, Western and Eastern and Sikh. Two couples that caught my eye, for instance, were a skinny Japanese guy and a well-favoured black lady who wandered about hand in hand, and a Scandy couple with their baby in a buggy where both parents wore dresses and lipstick but one appeared to shave daily. And the attendees awarded N.K. Jemisin the Hugo for best novel for the second year running. The Puppies movement of 2013–16 that wanted white masculine conservative technocratic Hugo winners, not a bunch of brown-skinned women and gay people, is well and truly an ex-parrot.

Awards that made me particularly happy (because here’s where my candidates won) were Hugos for Ursula Vernon (novelette), Ursula le Guin (related work) and Lois McMaster Bujold (book series). Also, my dear friend Carolina Gómez Lagerlöf won the prestigious Big Heart award for services to fandom, joining the august ranks of for instance Robert Bloch, Andre Norton and Jack Williamson.

The most interesting events I attended were Sonja Virta’s talk about Tove Jansson’s illustrations for The Hobbit, Karoliina Korppoo’s talk about boardgames in Finland, Kevin Roche’s talk about quantum computing and the Hugo prize ceremony.

The funniest events I attended were Lee Moyer’s presentation of weird and ugly book covers, Charles Stross’s reading from his forthcoming Laundry novel The Labyrinth Index (highly satirical – it has Nyarlathotep as main inhabitant of 10 Downing St.), the panel on mistranslations and the panel on Stockholm-Helsinki ferry culture.

My own programme items – a talk about crackpot archaeology in Scandinavia, a panel about Medieval reality vs fantasy, two Q&As about archaeology in the children’s room – all went super well, though the grown-up events could easily have filled much larger rooms than the ones we had been assigned.

I also enjoyed the short film programme, the art show and the socialising. I was lucky: my talk was one of the first events at the convention, so people learned early to recognise my face and several came up to me for a chat. Two of these conversations were particularly surprising.

1) The tall paunchy greybeard whom I didn’t recognise until minutes into the conversation, when I realised that he was an old Tolkien Society buddy that I hadn’t seen in a quarter century, and whom I remembered as a lanky beardless redhead.

2) The friendly Finn who had heard only 20 minutes of my talk before he and many other floor sitters were kicked out because of the fire safety rules, and who found the talk super interesting and wanted to hear more despite himself being a big believer in dowsing and several pretty far-out ideas about archaeological sites.

This was a super big, super rich and super well-organised convention. I found so much to do despite knowing nothing about the guests of honour and despite having no interest in several of the main strands of the programming (notably TV shows, comics, academic lit-crit and how to write fiction). Two years from now the WorldCon will be in Dublin, a city to which you can travel cheaply from Stockholm. I’ve never been to the Republic of Ireland. I’m thinking now that I’d really like to go to the con with my wife and then rent a car to spend a week at small-town B&Bs around the country.

Hiking In Abisko

Abisko national park is in the mountains of extreme northern Sweden, Sámi country, reindeer country, where half of the year is lit by constant sun and the other half is frigid darkness and aurorae.

Getting there takes 17½ hours by train from Stockholm Central. There’s a sleeper train with no changes, so if you only count time when you’re conscious, the trip takes 10 hours. You can fly to Arlanda airport and get right onto this train without making the detour into Stockholm. And the trail head is next to the platform when you get off.

Some friends and I went up hiking over the Mid-summer weekend 22–27 June, spending three nights in Abisko and two on the train. There are many huts and hostels in the area, so none of us brought a tent or a sleeping bag. Only Mårten brought a portable stove – to make espresso.

You don’t actually even need to bring a water bottle. There’s clean water in every stream. We arrived right at the start of the area’s hectic summer, with meltwater rivulets everywhere, innumerable flowers and a bewildering variety of bird calls. Very few mosquitoes bothered us. The treeline is near, so the landscape varies dramatically as your path lifts and dips. With a GPS or map and compass, of course, you needn’t even follow paths. The King’s Trail suffers from erosion, so the less people use it the better.

Check out the Swedish Tourist Association’s mountain hiking site.

Mechanisms Of Urban Decay

Downtown Kavalla’s mix of well-kept properties and hopeless ruins confuses me. I’ve seen similar in the Baltic States, but there it has to do with uncertainty about the ownership after the Soviet period, I’ve been told. That doesn’t apply here. So I googled real estate agencies and went visiting on my lunch break.

The first clue was simply that I couldn’t find most of the agencies at their stated addresses. One had closed down so recently that the sign was still there and the shop space hadn’t found a new tenant. The real estate market here isn’t exactly booming: demand is low. But eventually I found an open realtor’s office where a woman kindly yet sarcastically told me what I wanted to know.

Here’s why property owners don’t renovate old buildings in Kavalla, according to the realtor I spoke with.

  • You can’t get bank loans.
  • Low demand: even if you have the money, you’ll never make it back in this weak market.
  • Light repairs can be profitable, but there is a point of no return beyond which a property is too run-down for it ever to make you the money back. (I notice that a lot of the worst-kept buildings are low ones with a low potential ratio of tenants to plot acreage.)

Here’s why owners don’t tear the ruins down and redevelop.

  • Heritage protection.
  • Complicated bureaucracy.
  • Low demand.

Here’s why owners don’t just give up and sell their properties.

  • “Who would buy?” No demand for plot acreage. Might as well wait for a century or two.

Yet as I said, there are a lot of well-kept buildings here too, some of them recently renovated. One big difference according to my informant is that public property is usually much better kept than private property. I guess this is because private property has to support its own costs on site, while the government purse is nationwide. Case in point: see the picture above, with the beautiful municipal music school next to a once lavishly appointed ruin in private hands, both on busy Venizelou Street across from St. John’ schoolyard.

But my informant told me of one confusing case that seems to contradict much of the above. Kavalla is full of run-down tobacco warehouses from the early 20th century, when Western smokers still liked Turkish tobacco. One, on Filipou Street, is incongruously in great shape, very recently renovated. A sign proudly proclaims it to be the Euro Mania store, which if I understand correctly used to sell cheap stuff. But it’s closed and has started to attract spray-painted tags. I was told that the Euro Mania store did healthy business until a buyer recently offered the owner €9 million for it and perhaps made a small down payment. The condition was that the owner immediately close down his retail business and evacuate the premises. This seems to have been a handshake deal. But by the time the Euro Mania store had been completely cleaned out, the buyer withdrew his offer. And there it sits, one of Kavalla’s best-kept older private properties, making no money at all.