Århus: Art City

Nestled between Aalborg and southern Denmark lies an enclave of culture known as Aarhus. A city of substantial size – 275,000 inhabitants – in a fairly small country, Aarhus packs a major artistic punch not to be missed.

Given my current zip code, booking transportation can be challenging (read: unacceptable foreign credit cards, Google Translate incompatibility), but chalk another one up for the Danes – they’ve got that on lock, too. DSB trains are efficient, timely, and extremely comfortable. As it was school vacation week, I opted to reserve a seat (always worth checking before booking!). Since my timing was flexible, I opted for the orange ticket – cheaper fares found at slightly less-traveled times. Very easy on the wallet in a country that leans towards the pricier side.

Pulling into Aarhus’ Central Station, I followed the signs to luggage storage. I easily deposited my overnight bag at the cost of 20 Danish krona for 24 hours (roughly 3USD). As I had opted to travel without a SIM card or an international phone plan – digital detachment being the vacation goal – I had prepped by downloading the city limits of Aarhus on Google Maps. Plugging in my first destination, the ARoS Aarhus Kunstmuseum, I set off into the chilly, grey morning on foot.

My destination was less than a kilometer from the station and I spotted its famed rooftop installation almost immediately. The Rainbow Pavilion had attracted my eye on an Instagram feed, leading me to plan this stop on my return trip to Copenhagen.

ARoS did not disappoint. Within the museum’s impressive contemporary art collection, I spotted works by artists I recognize and noted a few new names to investigate.

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World-renowned American artist Julian Schnabel’s canvases stretch over 40 feet high in ARoS’ cavernous underground galleries. Though I’m not necessarily a huge fan, I have to give him credit for these massive undertakings.

After wandering the galleries, I made my way to the museum’s roof. Perched on a hilltop, the building already has a height advantage over the surrounding low-lying city below. If you add a tunnel of the color continuum, you’re in business – views for days, and ever evolving ones thanks to the blustery autumn day.

I enjoyed my time in Aarhus so much that I’ve made a promise to return. With delicious restaurants, pedestrian walkways, and plenty of good shopping, there’s a lot to love. A few hours later, I arrived found myself back in Copenhagen for the evening. After spending time loading up on groceries not found in Moscow, I wandered the canal sidewalks, watching the lights of the row houses dance on the water. Denmark has a very special charm, buttoned up in stormy navy blue skies and shimmering golden light. Until next time…

A few days in the land of LEGO

Back in August, a good friend reminded me that the school year is a marathon, not a sprint. After a pretty jam-packed 8 weeks, I was in need of a true break. Blessed as I am to live this life of exploration, I have begun to take pleasure in lesser known travel destinations. Quieter, less touristy, and generally more subtle in their cultural distinctions, these countries offer a true departure from the daily grind and intriguing insights if you know where to look.

As I racked my brain for destinations of interest, I immediately landed on Denmark. My good friend Kristen has been living there off and on for nearly a decade, first studying abroad in Copenhagen, then completing her Fulbright, and finally a PhD in Aalborg, Denmark. Clearly this land had a pull on her and I struck out to find what has captured her attention for all these years.

A short two-hour flight from Moscow, I had been to Copenhagen once before on a layover. Finding the city charming, I took advantage and booked a night there on either end of my trip. Mindful of my need to unwind, I booked a 5 hour train ride to Aalborg for the next morning. Denmark, a land of islands and fields, proved the perfect antidote to a mind in need of quiet contemplation. For those with less time to spare, Aalborg is a quick 45-minute flight from Copenhagen.

As ease of travel goes, Denmark has it down to a science. An easy 13-minute ride into town from Kastrup Airport, Copenhagen boasts my favorite train station in all of Europe. Easy to navigate with signs in English and Danish, I circled the station collecting little creature comforts to outfit my train journey. Make fun if you will but Danish 7-11s have the selection in the world. These are not your average American convenience stores with slurpees and days-old hot dogs rotating on a spit. No, this is quality fare, the stuff of Marks & Spencer grocery store legend (see Edinburgh Airport, April 2018). Have a look for yourself.

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Clearly we are not in Kansas anymore. I was well-stocked for my 5-hour ride.

As the train gathered speed, we left the spitting rain behind and a glorious sunrise burst forth from behind the clouds. The Danish countryside rolled past, with manicured lawns giving way to farm land and streams. Wind turbines dotted many ridge lines and horses and cows could be spotted every few kilometers.

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As we headed north, I watched the seasons change, with greens turning to vibrant yellows, and green farmland quickly becoming brown. October is not Denmark’s high tourist season, which suited me just fine.

Kristen in front of a beautiful turning ginko tree

Aalborg is a town of industry and academics. Boasting gorgeous water views across the local fjord, this port town was officially established in 1342 but dates back as a settlement over 1300 years. Wind power technology and cement distribution as its major exports, Aalborg is also home to 20,000 university students and faculty, which includes my good friend Kristen, an assistant professor in the IT and Design Department focusing on marine governance.

Kristen and I go way back, all the way to Mrs. Carey’s 2nd Grade class, and she and I have remained good friends throughout our post-college years, overlapping in DC for a time and now as a handful of Medfield kids living abroad in Europe. It was so great to finally see the town where she’s lived for all these years.

The Danes are currently trending in contemporary mainstream culture for their art of hygge (pronounced hue-ga in Danish). As the days grow shorter and the darkness comes sooner, hygge is the practice of embracing the night with candles and conversation to stimulate the mind and senses.

Never short on conversation or laughs, Kristen and I hygge’d for hours each evening, taking in some of Aalborg night life as well. From food trucks to fjord bathing, Aalborg knows how to keep it entertaining.

Chilling by the fjord with my trusty rent-a-steed, King. For only $15 I rented this bike for 24 hours, thanks to the aid of bluetooth technology and a simple app. Speaking of, turns out Bluetooth is a Danish invention named after a Viking king. Who knew?
I tried guf, a marshmallow-like topping that melts in your mouth. If you find yourself in Aalborg in need of a sweat treat, I highly recommend Guf & Kugler.
Wandering the charming cobblestone streets of Aalborg was relaxing, with adorable homes and friendly shopkeepers at every turn.

One of my favorite chats with a local included an elderly fellow who shook my hand and welcomed me to Aalborg in perfect English. Like many, he wanted to know just what had drawn me to this little corner of Denmark. He went on to tell me that he had spent 7 years living in the United States, specifically in New Jersey – a state, he informed me, which has an undeserved reputation. I quite agreed 🙂

Before I knew it, it was time to head onto Aarhus for some art and culture. I truly enjoyed my stay in Aalborg, a little gem made infinitely cooler by having a local guide. Friendly people, quaint side streets, and plenty of bike paths made Aalborg a very chill Danish destination. I would highly recommend it.

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One last cotton candy sunset over Aalborg.

The Beauty of Layovers

Inspired by a friend who has been a traveler longer than I’ve been alive, I now strive to embrace the art of the layover. Quite simply, if you must have a connecting flight, why not use that opportunity to see a new city for a few hours? Or days even?

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Despite the jet lag, I’d say travel suits us 🙂

That’s exactly what my friend Becky and I decided to do. For years we had talked about taking a trip to Iceland. This summer, we set out to make it happen.

With Becky headed back to Doha, Qatar, and myself heading back to Moscow, Iceland seemed a natural stopping point, especially considering how easy Iceland Air makes the opportunity. Allowing you to extend your layover for up to 7 nights, the company attracts a deluge of travelers from the States. From the moment I stepped onto the plane for the brief 4.5 hour ride from Boston, I knew I wasn’t among my usual international jet set. With a few more demands than normal and seemingly less awareness of travel norms, I was curious to see what this tourist country had in store. But can I really blame anyone for taking advantage? Iceland Air offers direct flights from most major US cities – Boston, New York, Houston, LA, San Fran, Miami, Chicago, etc. Without risking sounding like an ad for Air Iceland, I thought I’d share our experience in country with all of you.

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We landed in Iceland and our first challenge was to locate our rental car. Definitely the recommended way to get around, allowing you the ability to set your own touring schedule, renting a car or – even better – a motor home is the cheapest way to transit the island.

We rented from a group called SAD cars (the name should have tipped us off), which were affordable, if run on a bit of a shoestring. Can’t speak ill of them really as they proved great customer service and even dropped me off at my Airbnb on my last night, no charge.

After acquiring the necessities at baggage claim (duty-free alcohol – definitely worth it with prices like these!!, local currency, and a SIM card – in that order), we were ready for action… if only we could fight the jet lag for an entire day. The Dunkies in the airport lobby provided some assistance.

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The latest Merg-mobile

Onward we trekked towards Reykjavik, in our little meep meep car (manual transmission, of course). We paid more for a room in a hostel downtown than I did in NYC but the accommodations were comfortable and we couldn’t argue with the location. Just off the main shopping street, we had our pick of entertainment and that ole backpacker’s standby – the grocery store.

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Downtown Reykjavik – beautiful even in the rain

As food is just as pricey as accommodations, we made a habit throughout of eating just one meal out a day. We picnicked the rest with the help of the trusty gas stations across the land. Before you get grossed out, these are not your average Texaco stations. Fresh fruit and sandwiches are available and they’re quite delicious, too. Probably knowing that most visitors are sustaining on such, the country seems to have invested in this area. We certainly made the most of it, enjoying the local SKYR yogurt – hearty enough to stand for a meal all by itself!

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Wind joined us for the our road trip, bullying our tiny car and making photo shoots pretty hilarious

Thankfully we made it through our day of jet lag, only to meet up with two of Becky’s coworkers from Qatar for dinner. They’d been traveling around the Nordic countries for the summer and Iceland was their last stop. Sharing what they’d learned (including the need to not speed due to super heavy fines!), we had a great meal and crashed early.

For Day 2 in country, I would highly recommend booking (wayyyyy in advance) the one and only Blue Lagoon! The perfect cure for jet lag and a helluva life experience, the lagoon boasts natural hot springs which keep the water at an even 99F. Replete with a swim up bar AND a swim up face mask station, it’s pretty much heaven on Earth. We lucked out that our only day of rain fell on our Blue Lagoon Day – with the cooler temperatures above, the lagoon gave off an incredible mist that only added to the spirit of the day. An opportunity not to be missed.

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In total, we traversed only about 1/6 of Iceland’s Ring Road during our 5 day stay. From Reykjavik past Vik, we saw the sea and the mountains all in one go.

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Black sand beach from a visa just outside of Vik. Opposite us, puffins nested in the cliffs.
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We christened this series “Photoshopped” as it actually looks like I’ve just dropped a cutout of Becky onto a photograph. Here we are hiking above the falls at Skogafoss.
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Gullfoss Falls

I think the highlight for us both was our last night in which we stayed in a hotel with a view of the Vatnajokull glacier (the one from The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, if you’re familiar). Watching the sun setting at 10:30pm with a huge moon already risen on the opposite horizon was simply breathtaking.

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Our back porch with the Vatnajokull Glacier just out of view

Iceland will do that – take your breath away.

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#Korea chooses you.

After Becky took off for Doha, I had one more little trick up my sleeve. Owing to a lack of direct flights to Moscow from Reykjavik, I extended yet another layover – this time for a 10 hour day out and about in Copenhagen, Denmark.

After an early morning flight in Iceland, I dropped my bag in an airport locker and the extremely convenient train to downtown, arriving at the central station in only 12 minutes.

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Having a good friend living in Denmark, I had an in on a number of cool places around the quaint city center. I resolved to walk all of it as I’d been doing a lot of driving throughout Iceland (mixed in with the hiking, of course). The city proved extremely walkable and it’s multitude of cafes and free Wi-fi hotspots made navigating without internet a breeze.

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I bypassed the Tivoli Gardens (a stop for another visit) and headed straight for the canal. We Pendletons are always drawn to water and this city on the sound was no exception. I was thrilled by what I found – gorgeous boats tied up in front of touristy restaurants (as well as Hans Christian Anderson’s house, as well).

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I stumbled upon an Ai Wei Wei installation about migrants flocking to the shores of Europe that I’d vaguely remembered was in Copenhagen. I even found an installation by Yoko Ono at the Copenhagen Contemporary on one of the city’s islands!

Super friendly people and a great vibe is how I’ll remember the city. I really look forward to going back someday.

With that, I set a course for the island that is now home – Moscow. It was wonderful to return to my own apartment, seeing friends and students once again. This school year is still in its infancy but it’s amazing how much better Year 2 as an ex-pat can be! Night and day in comparison. Happy to be back and excited to share more journeys with all of you. For now, however, good night and thanks for reading 🙂