Wednesday, May 25, 2011


On my final day in Copenhagen there was packing to do and transport to organise, so there was only a brief amount of time to run out into the city and revisit the most important place in Copenhagen:

Then it was off to the airport for the painfully long flight back to Australia. I was dreading it. Worst of all, the only way to fortify ourselves for the 24+ hour flight was with wretched American coffee.

The Admiral and I were both sad to leave the cool, stylish surroundings of Copenhagen. Even the airport is a bastion of designer minimalism, full of wood panelling and soaring glass walls. But we were both needed back home, me to return to my job, and him to warn people about traps.

The trip back was a lot more pleasant than the trip over, largely because I didn’t have anyone sitting next to me for the two longest legs, and I actually got a couple of hours of sleep between Amsterdam and Singapore.

It also helped that my final leg was with Singapore Airlines. One of their stewardesses leapt at the chance to demonstrate her bartending skills and made me a fine pre-dinner Singapore Sling. Then I had a reasonable little shiraz with dinner, and a fat glass of cognac after dinner. And I don’t really remember much after that.

I’ve got to fly with classy airlines more often.

Monday, May 23, 2011


Any design junkie visiting Copenhagen has to pay homage to the masters the craft by visiting the Kunstindustrimuseet, or, in English, the Danish Museum of Art and Design.

I’ve visited several museums on this trip, but the Kunstindustrimuseet was the first that grabbed me tight and made me want to linger. It’s arranged chronologically, beginning in the present then wending its way back through the centuries. Each era and design movement is evoked using spectacular examples of the style, whether it be a magnificent Art Nouveau cabinet or a sleek Bauhaus chair.

You may be thinking, “Oh, wow, a cupboard and a chair and a tapestry of mermaids feeding lemons to orcas. The fun never stops for Blanders, does it.” If so, you clearly don’t comprehend the beauty in the collision of engineering, physics and art that enabled these designs. It’s all about people seeing the creative possibilities of new technology, whether it be fibreglass, plywood or plastic.

Also you're an arseclown.

Of course no museum of Danish design would be complete without featuring the greatest use for plastic ever:

In fact I was so entranced that I didn’t even think to take photos of the Admiral. At least not until we hit the pub afterwards.

Sunday, May 22, 2011


After a week on a ship with an interior following the same design principles as the average drag queen, I decided to spend a couple of extra days in Copenhagen enjoying the pleasures of good design.

I started out in Copenhagen’s beautiful Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, a sculpture museum based around the collection of the son of the founder of Carlsberg Breweries. The lobby is a luxurious but typical piece of late Victorian architecture, with mosaic tiled floors, ornate brass stair newels and stained glass barrel skylights . However it opens into the museum’s central atrium, which is not typical at all.

It’s a Winter Garden filled with shrubs and trees, some nearly four storeys tall. There’s a pond filled with goldfish, and birds chitter in the trees. It’s dotted with classical sculptures and through the trees you glimpse other galleries filled with artworks.

The photos don’t capture the almost magical feeling of having a beautiful garden at the core of an art museum*. It feels utterly civilised.

It’s also very old-fashioned, harking back to the 18th and 19th centuries, when museums were all about luxuriating in the beauty of the past rather than learning improving lessons about Babylonian irrigation systems or the role of the maternal ideal in medieval religious painting. One gallery, filled with Roman statuary and mosaics, also boasted a grand piano and tall urns of flowers, suggesting that it doubled as a venue for elegant social functions.

While the museum has amassed a lovely collection of paintings and a formidable range of ancient artefacts, it’s primarily about the sculptures. Pieces by Rodin and Degas are complemented by 20th century Danish works and two thousands year old figures unearthed across Greece, Italy and Egypt. My favourite piece was probably the 1903 depiction of Perseus Slaying Medusa by Laurent-Honoré Marqueste, breathtaking in both its sense of emotional drama and in its physical delicacy, with each individual snake of Medusa’s hair flawlessly carved out of the marble.

Unfortunately I don’t have a picture of it. I was busy with other things.

*This photo from Wikipedia captures the sense of the garden better.

Saturday, May 21, 2011


All good things must come to an end. Similarly all garish, gaudy, endlessly-food-crammed things must come to an end too. And so it was that the MSC Orchestra made its stately way back into the port of Copenhagen, pausing only to blast its deafening, herald-of-the-apocalypse-loud horn at a tiny sailboat that came stupidly close to not getting out of its way. I’m pretty sure the Orchestra was in the right, but even if it wasn’t, I think that the natural rule of thumb is to always give way to a sixteen storey ocean-going skyscraper.

The Admiral and I bade goodbye to a couple of the crew with whom we’d been friendly, sobbed loudly at having to part with the buffet, and gave a gigantic meh to the rest of the passengers, then headed ashore. On the way back into central Copenhagen we thought it only proper to stop and see the Little Mermaid, Denmark’s most famous icon.


Actually that’s not the Little Mermaid. That’s the Big Mermaid, who doesn’t appear in any official tourist publications but is nevertheless an attraction. She’s carved out of granite rather than cast in bronze, but like her smaller sister she sits on the seafront and is admired by tourists. Or at least the male ones.

This is the Little Mermaid:

Or rather this is Admiral Ackbar, hogging the camera, as he has the entire trip. Not that you’re missing much: the Little Mermaid is under constant siege from several hundred Japanese tourists, dutifully snapping their obligatory pictures of her. Any photo of the Little Mermaid is really the Little Mermaid Plus Entourage.

Eventually the Admiral agreed to get out of the way, but not out of focus.

He’s quite a ham for someone made out of calamari.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

St. Petersberg

The cruise itinerary saved the largest and most intense port of call for last: St Petersberg, on the extreme eastern shore of the Baltic.

Russia is the only country visited by the liner that requires visas, and so the only way that the lazy, cheap and/or disorganised passenger could go ashore was as part of a formal excursion group. I chose the longest and most expensive option, which visited a couple of churches, a battleship, a market and, as the highlight, the Hermitage Museum.

The first church was the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul, the resting place for the mortal remains of almost all of the tsars and tsarinas of Russian history. It’s not exactly a sombre or subtle interior, but then I guess that sums up the Russian royal family.

The second church was the Church on the Spilled Blood, built on the site of the murder of Tsar Alexander II in 1881. Again, about as solemn and understated as an episode of 'Jackass'.

Then there was the battleship Aurora, which fired the blank shell that signalled the revolutionaries to commence the assault on the Winter Palace that began the October Revolution in 1917. And look how well all that turned out. Now, according to our tour guide, it’s more notable for being infested with pickpockets, and she refused to let us anywhere near it. I had to keep a close eye on Admiral Ackbar, but you can’t keep a naval man away from maritime history.

Lastly we had the Hermitage. It’s easy to explain the Hermitage - it's simply one of the largest and most impressive art museums in the world - but it's impossible to describe it. It's spectacular on spectacular for hours on end, until the superlatives cease to mean anything. Imagine the fanciest, most lavish interior you can concoct, then build something even fancier and more lavish. Then do the same thing again with different materials. Then again. And again. Hundreds and hundreds of times.

Each of the hundreds of rooms is filled with amazing things. Any single item in any room is a treasure so wonderful and beautiful that it would be the greatest thing one could ever own. And yet it's just one of literally millions of other treasures, anonymous in the maze of rooms instead of getting the dazzling spotlight it deserves.

For example, here's one of Catherine the Great's coffee tables:

It's painted with romantic scenes of Italy. Only it isn't painted.

It's made of up of thousands of gnat-sized glass mosaic tiles, so tiny and perfectly laid that their colours blend imperceptibly. And it's just one of maybe a dozen similar tables scattered through a couple of back rooms.

It's far, far too much to take in. One needs a lot more time. But, as the tour guide said, if one spent a minute looking at each item in the Hermitage, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, it would take more than five years to see everything... by which time you'd be long dead from sleep deprivation.

With the extraordinary glory of the Hermitage, it's a shame that the rest of St Petersberg is such a dump. Dilapidated and dusty buildings, traffic that verges on the Third World, and the Mercedes and BMWs of local gangsters parked wherever the hell they like, whether it be across a crosswalk or nose-first into the footpath on a street corner. In the centre of the city I saw a trio of very young, very beautiful doxies park their boyfriend's glossy Toyota Landcruiser at a 45 degree angle in a parallel parking space, half on the street and half on the pavement, then go teetering away on their skyscraper heels, giggling and adjusting their flimsy minidresses.

Everything in St Petersberg seems to be over the top, from the shennanigans of the royal family to the apartment buildings with gun placements decorating their forecourts.

It's aggressive, decadent and unrestrained. Mind you, I just typed that while looking out over the city from Deck 13 of my luxury cruise liner, in a big wicker armchair next to one of the swimming pools, while sipping a Mai-Tai, so who am I to judge?

Wednesday, May 18, 2011


The cruise's third port of call was the Estonian capital, Tallinn. Principal industries: tourism, textiles, battered old cars, unfashionable haircuts and recovering from communism. The main draw for tourists is the Old City, one of the most complete medieval cities in Europe.

There isn't a lot left of the original medieval aesthetic; just a crenellated tower here and a fortified wall there. But the architecture is there, buried under the renovations of dozens of generations. Baroque, Rococco, Art Nouveau... then it stops, around the time that the Russians swept in and created their usual bleak moratorium on renovation and restoration. Fortunately the Soviets don't seem to have shown much of an interest in obliterating the Old City, as they did elsewhere, instead limiting their trademark Brutalist concrete sprawls to outside the city walls.

Not surprisingly, two decades after the fall of communism, the Old City is now flawlessly restored and maintained, while the 30 year old Soviet stadium just outside is an abandoned and crumbling ruin.

Overall the Old City has a ridiculous chocolate box charm. No serious business is conducted within its walls, just the sale of trinkets and snacks for tourists. Even the churches seem to be there to add to the charm rather than to facilitate the worship of God. It creates an odd sense of disconnect when you realise that you can buy the same tacky snowglobe at thirty different stores but if you want a newspaper or a carton of milk, you're screwed.

It wasn't until we left the confines of the Old City and ventured into the surprisingly modern new central business district that we came to appreciate the tourist trappiness of the Old City. We stopped at an old-fashioned but stylish city cafe, and were gobsmacked by the low prices. 1.5 Euros ($2.10) for coffee. 1 Euro ($1.40) for a piece of delicious ricotta cheesecake. 0.65 Euros (90 cents) for a savoury pastry. This after we'd paid 3 Euros for a paper cup of hot but extraordinarily terrible wine at an Old City street stall.

One other thing I purchased in an Old City antique shop was expensive but irresistible: a tiny antique iron devil.

Admiral Ackbar is mortified.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011


The Adventures of Admiral Ackbar and the Frozen Pomegranate Margarita of DOOM!



It's a trap!


Stockholm is in many ways like Copenhagen. It's more multicultural, the 19th century buildings are grander and the landscape on which it is built is more exciting – a scattering of hilly islands separated by channels of rushing water – but it has a similar feel, with a focus on the ocean and a fetish for good design. And more Volvos than is usually considered decent.

However I saw no sign of ABBA while I was there. Frankly I felt cheated.

We started on the Old City island, full of charming narrow cobbled streets and a nice mix of tourist shops and real stores for actual Swedes. Like Copenhagen it's very human scaled, designed to allow human beings rather than cars to move from one place to another. The pedestrian is very much in charge, which creates a sense of empowerment for the individual; we're no longer just things that get in the way of the flow of traffic.

The island is dominated by the royal palace, which had a particularly pale, blonde, blue-eyed symbol of the nation standing guard in an impressive uniform. Some of the tourists assumed that he was one of those immobile living ornaments that stand outside Buckingham Palace, and tried to take photographs with him, until he loudly chased them away, because he was an actual palace sentry, and he clearly took his job seriously.

Then, as part of the design-junkie agenda of this holiday, we were off to the Architecture Museum, an institution entirely populated by slim young men with wispy beards and women with assertive haircuts, all wearing black. The museum was full of dry, rather intense displays about the history and ethos of Scandinavian architecture, but it was certainly informative, and it had plenty of Admiral Ackbar-scaled models for him to explore.

And even some scaled to allow him to act out his Godzilla fantasies.

There was also a special exhibition of the weird, probably drug-induced Age of Aquarius freakiness that typified cutting edge design in the 70s. Lots of beardy design fascism envisaging a future of people forced into plastic living pods, eating food pills and wearing matching jumpsuits.

After touring the museum I spent almost as much time in the gift shop, where I bought a fake moose head (as you do, or at least as I do), and a photo mobile. Then I bought a very designer coffee from a particularly slender and wispy young man and took some arty photos.