MU­SIC MEN

In Nor­way and Fin­land, Steve Creedy toasts the sig­nif­i­cant an­niver­saries of two great com­posers

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

AF­TER fi­nally tum­bling into the com­fort­able bed that dom­i­nates my mod­est wa­ter­side room, I am wo­ken at 6am by the sound of dis­tant drums. It’s Nor­way’s na­tional day and there is ap­par­ently no bet­ter way to show your pa­tri­otic fer­vour than to march around the street at dawn bang­ing a drum. Th­ese are quickly fol­lowed by can­non fired from the his­toric fort on the other side of Ber­gen’s pic­turesque har­bour.

The op­por­tu­nity to sleep is well and truly over. Even at the best of times, sleep and var­i­ous lands of the (al­most) mid­night sun are not so much strange bed­fel­lows but con­cepts that re­side in en­tirely dif­fer­ent build­ings. The days are so long and the nights so short that any visit to Scan­di­navia in late spring or sum­mer will in­evitably lead to in­som­nia. But Nor­way’s cel­e­bra­tion of its na­tion­hood takes this to new lev­els.

I have been warned by Nor­we­gians that some out­siders view their na­tional cel­e­bra­tions as slightly over the top. A re­porter from Nor­we­gian na­tional ra­dio swings by the ho­tel to see if I am one of them. The fact she is wear­ing na­tional cos­tume sug­gests those out­siders may well be right and, as we step out­side, I am not dis­ap­pointed. The streets are a colour­ful riot of tra­di­tional cos­tumes of var­i­ous shapes, sizes and eras as the good cit­i­zens of Ber­gen show their en­thu­si­asm for Nor­we­gian in­de­pen­dence.

Ed­vard Grieg would no doubt have heartily ap­proved, not only of the pa­tri­otic fer­vour but of the fes­tiv­i­ties that last long into the night. Nor­way’s fa­mous com­poser is the rea­son I’m in Ber­gen on the first leg of what I’ve dubbed, with apolo­gies to Monty Python, the De­com­pos­ing Com­poser Tour. Grieg played a big part in my child­hood and this year is the 100th an­niver­sary of his death.

It all be­gan when eight-year-old Creedy went home and hummed a few off-key bars of Morn­ing , from the Peer Gynt Suite , af­ter hear­ing it at school. De­lighted that her son had dis­cov­ered some­thing a lit­tle more cul­tural than lizards and white mice, my mother rushed down to the record shop to buy me my own copy of Peer Gynt . The album’s cover fea­tured a glossy pic­ture of a green meadow framed by snow-capped moun­tains that would for­ever be as­so­ci­ated, re­gard­less of Ib­sen’s play, with Grieg’s mu­sic and Nor­way.

So it was with some ex­cite­ment that I had two days ear­lier looked down on Ber­gen from my SAS flight to see the kind of moun­tain and coastal scenery Grieg’s mu­sic evoked and au­thor Douglas Adams had, some­what less ro­man­ti­cally, de­scribed as ‘‘ the crinkly bits’’.

It seems ob­vi­ous why the mil­len­nium-old city on the west coast of Nor­way has be­come a tourist mecca. Founded in 1070 by King Olav Kyrre, it hugs the hills at the en­try to the fjords, sur­rounded by seven moun­tains and drip­ping with his­tory stretch­ing from the Vik­ing era through to mod­ern times. It was once the north’s big­gest city and from the 13th cen­tury was an im­por­tant port for the Hanseatic League, the Ger­man me­dieval guild of mer­chants whose dis­tinc­tive wharf­side build­ings, the Bryggen, still grace the colour­ful har­bour.

A good way to get a feel for the town and a sense of Grieg’s ear­lier years is with a guided walk­ing tour that in­cludes the me­dieval churches and the older res­i­den­tial dis­tricts. Many of the quaint wooden houses have been re­peat­edly burned down and re­built, but the charm of the old town re­mains. Restau­rants and bars are lib­er­ally sprin­kled through the old sec­tor but they are ex­pen­sive. Ex­pect to pay as much as $50 for a main course at a good seafood restau­rant in the tourist dis­trict and to take out a sec­ond mort­gage if you want to drink de­cent wine.

Noth­ing here is cheap but one way of re­duc­ing over­heads is to buy a Ber­gen Card of­fer­ing sig­nif­i­cant dis­counts on at­trac­tions. The card also in­cludes a free round-trip on one of the must-do fea­tures in the city, the Mt Floyen fu­nic­u­lar rail­way. The ex­tremely fit can walk up Mt Floyen, but most tourists are con­tent to ride the fu­nic­u­lar.

As I have a VIP Ber­gen Card, and I’m not even vaguely fit, the fu­nic­u­lar is a lay-down mis­ere and proves well worth the trip. The views of the sur­round­ing val­leys and wa­ter­ways are truly spec­tac­u­lar and the sun even sets over the sea. How­ever, sun­set junkies be warned: civil­i­sa­tions have been built and crum­bled in less time than it takes for the Nordic sun to go down. For­tu­nately, spec­tac­u­lar views are only part of the rea­son I’m here. I’ve al­ready seen where Grieg went to school and the long walk he en­dured as a child af­ter his par­ents moved out from the town cen­tre.

I’ve also been to the Old Ber­gen Mu­seum, a vil­lage-like set­ting about 4km from the town cen­tre that is home to 40 older build­ings. A short walk down its cob­ble­stoned streets leads to a cabin over­look­ing the wa­ter. This is where Grieg is said to have com­posed some of Peer Gynt and I can imag­ine him star­ing thought­fully across the fjord to the moun­tains be­yond.

But there is one pot of gold in Ber­gen that no Grieg fan can miss: Trold­hau­gen. The approach to Grieg’s home for the last two decades of his life is a peace­ful tree-lined av­enue that ends on a rocky promon­tory over-

look­ing Lake Nor­das, about 10km south of Ber­gen. It’s one of those beau­ti­ful and tran­quil spots that make you wish you’d got there first and that you were a lot richer. It even beats the pic­ture on the old Peer Gynt record sleeve. Grieg bought the land from a lo­cal farmer and planned his new home while he wrote the Hol­berg Suite in 1884-85.

The com­poser lived and worked here ev­ery sum­mer un­til his death in 1907, widely tour­ing warmer parts of Europe with wife Nina dur­ing the win­ter.

It is here and in the ac­com­pa­ny­ing mu­seum that you get the best sense of Grieg’s life. The sur­pris­ingly mod­est house has been care­fully pre­served and con­tains a fas­ci­nat­ing ar­ray of orig­i­nal arte­facts, in­clud­ing a Stein­way pi­ano given to Grieg on his sil­ver wed­ding an­niver­sary in 1892. He and Nina are buried in a tomb cut into the rock face over­look­ing the com­poser’s cabin. It is here that it is eas­i­est to see how the area in­fused Grieg’s mu­sic with that evoca­tive sense of land­scape that even an eight-year-old could pick up.

But Grieg, of course, is not the only Scan­di­na­vian com­poser to have made it big. Two days later I’m sit­ting on a Fin­nish train watch­ing forests of spruce and fir glide by while lis­ten­ing to Si­belius’s Vi­o­lin Con­certo in D mi­nor. It’s one of those smooth-as-silk Euro­pean trains and it’s whisk­ing me to the lake­side town of Lahti, about 45 min­utes from Helsinki by rail. The soar­ing vi­o­lin of the first move­ment fits per­fectly with the scenery. I’m off to Lahti to see the im­pres­sive Si­belius Hall, a wood-and-glass ar­chi­tec­tural mas­ter­piece perched on the shores of Lake Ve­si­jarvi and home to the Lahti Sym­phony Orches­tra. Si­belius’s his­tor­i­cal con­nec­tion with Lahti is some­what ten­u­ous in that he used to hol­i­day near the town but never lived in it.

But the ded­i­ca­tion of the LSO and con­duc­tor Osmo Van­ska to the com­poser’s mu­sic has seen the es­tab­lish­ment of an an­nual Si­belius Fes­ti­val each Septem­ber and the con­struc­tion of the im­pos­ing sym­phony hall. Lahti is a pleas­ant town that sells it­self as the gate­way to Fin­land’s lake dis­trict and it is gear­ing up to mark the 50th an­niver­sary of Si­belius’s death. Like the Nor­we­gians, the Finns love fish, and a pleas­ant lunch at the lakeshore Restau­rant Cas­seli show­cases the breadth of tasty lo­cal dishes. From here it’s a short walk to the sym­phony hall where the LSO and Van­ska are go­ing through the painstak­ing process of record­ing their latest CD. The hall’s in­te­rior is even more im­pres­sive than its ex­te­rior; the en­gi­neers record­ing the album say its acous­tics are among the best in Scan­di­navia.

Fin­land may not have the scenic splen­dour of Nor­way’s fjords but its rolling, wooded coun­try­side is dot­ted with lakes that pro­vide the Finns with a recre­ational re­source and place to build week­enders. It is one of th­ese hol­i­day homes that gives Lahti its his­tor­i­cal link with Si­belius, al­though his house is near Jar­ven­paa, about 40km north of Helsinki.

Si­belius was in his 30s when he de­cided the bus­tle of Helsinki was in­ter­fer­ing with his abil­ity to write mu­sic and, like Grieg, he needed some­where more tran­quil. Ai­nola, named af­ter his wife Aino, was that place.

Ai­nola is an­other is­land of tran­quil­lity: a two-storey house of uniquely lo­cal de­sign with log walls and tra­di­tional tiled heat­ing stoves. A grand pi­ano sits in the draw­ing room and, as with Grieg, you can imag­ine Si­belius sit­ting in his study gaz­ing at the lake that could be seen at that time in the dis­tance. And again, it is the last rest­ing place of the com­poser and his wife.

From Ai­nola it’s a quick trip back to Helsinki to sam­ple some of that city’s many of­fer­ings. Helsinki is not huge but it has a rich his­tory, a good nightlife and some great pubs. And be­cause it’s part of the Euro­pean Union and uses the euro, it is cheaper than Nor­way.

Buy­ing a Helsinki Card is a good way to see the city be­cause it gives un­lim­ited travel on pub­lic trans­port, free en­try to at­trac­tions and mu­se­ums as well as free travel to the fas­ci­nat­ing Suomen­linna Sea Fortress, a mas­sive stone fortress built in the mid­dle of 18th cen­tury dur­ing Swedish rule and later taken over by the Rus­sians.

It is a sub­urb of Helsinki with a pop­u­la­tion of more than 800 and one of the na­tion’s most pop­u­lar at­trac­tions. A sprawl­ing com­plex built over four is­lands, Suomen­linna Sea Fortress houses mu­se­ums, restau­rants, cafes and even a youth hos­tel. An af­ter­noon wan­der­ing around the com­plex fails to do it jus­tice but works up enough of an ap­petite to war­rant head­ing out on an evening stroll in search of a good cafe or bar. There’s time to briefly poke my nose into one of Si­belius’s old haunts, the plush Ho­tel Kamp, be­fore head­ing to a bar dis­cov­ered the pre­vi­ous night. It has beers from across the world, in­clud­ing some top lo­cally pro­duced bou­tique ales. And what bet­ter way to toast the an­niver­saries of two great com­posers? Steve Creedy vis­ited Scan­di­navia cour­tesy of Star Al­liance, SAS, My Planet and the Fin­nish Tourist Board. www.staral­liance.com www.fly­sas.com www.ben­tours.com.au www.vis­itfin­land.com/au www.vis­itscan­di­navia.com.au. Tim Heald in Helsinki: The In­ci­den­tal Tourist — Page 4

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