From Utrecht to Aalborg (Thursday, May 6th – Saturday, May 8th)

This is part 2 of 3 from the blog post Driving From Ireland to Iceland. If you follow this link the original post will explin these entries further.

Thursday, May 5th 2011 – Up Utrecht!

Morning arrived unexpectedly, and I awoke at the crack of dawn to go city-adventuring. Utrecht had seemed pretty cool from the stroll the night before, with an abnormal amount of bicycles and fashionable people so I figured I would stay until after lunch and see what the city had to offer.

When checking in the previous night, the receptionist had recommended the clock museum so I decided I would visit that at some point. A very groovy poster led me to believe that there was a good exhibition to be found at Kunstliefde if I could find it. And besides that I was feeling much better after the rest and decided a city adventure would be ideal!

So off I went, firstly heading straight back to the car to put a ticket on. Parked out the front of the main train station I figured it would be obligatory and necessary to appease the local authorities. A ticket for one hour was €4.95. I decided to pass up on this opportunity and take my chances with the clampers.

Following the chiming of the twinkling bells of the “Dom” (the impressive cathedral dedicated to St. Cathrijne) I arrived at the city centre. The cathedral tower plays chiming tunes all day long, which echo for quite a distance and are kind of sickly-lovely but not altogether distracting once you get used to them. From here I followed signs and a map and found the Aboriginal Art museum down by a pleasant sunny morning riverside, reaching the door just as they opened for the day.

A little on the expensive side to enter, the museum was definitely worth it. Showing works by members of CoBrA and Roar, there was an abundance of amazing stuff on display, both aboriginal work and imitations of these styles. The techniques and colours were wonderfully impressive and made me immediately want to reach Iceland and pick up a brush.

My next stop was Kunstliefde. I reached there at around 10 a.m. I rang the buzzer and upset an upstairs-artist and the receptionist there. She told me they opened at 1. I apologised and left.

Neglecting thoughts of a premature exit from the city, I decided to wander some more. I stumbled across the clock museum and snuck in the back entrance to watch the tour for free and take some sneaky photos. They had an inordinate amount of 18th and 19th Century hurdy-gurdies, cuckoo clocks, musical children’s toys, obtusely decorated automatic organs and other garishly tacky classical kitch that was all fairly wonderful in its own right.

I went for another street wander and came across a little shop called Kunsthandel Meijer that had very nice art on display in the window. The unassuming corner-stall looked like a boutique with simple white-framed windows and a rugged exterior that looked slightly worn and forlorn. Inside it was a two-roomed pokey affair, but the art on display was really nice and I was happy to look around. The owner eyed me warily as I entered but he was preoccupied with a phone-call (the first of many that he took while I was there).

Gazing around the room I couldn’t help but feel quite shocked at the high level of quality in the artworks. “Utrecht impresses again,” I said to myself, still reeling from the Aboriginal Art show. Finishing his call, the owner came and joined me, figuring out quickly that we needed to speak in English, and spoke to me about the works. “That’s a David Hockney,” he said unassumingly, “that one us Keith Haring, Wiessemann, another Wiessemann, Gundar Gundarsson, and there’s an Andy Warhol print.” I thought he was joking at first.

It turned out that this man, the image of non-chalance, was a keen collector of sixties pop art. He loved the stuff so much that every topic of conversation we got engrossed in eventually turned back to Pop Art. This was clearly his specialist subject, but he ended up being so full of knowledge that he was willing to share (including showing me a list of Icelandic artists that he recommended on his Mac, thrusting books at me, and raving about the work of one or another artist, some of whom I had never heard of) that I couldn’t get away from the engrossing conversation. Only when he stopped to take another phonecall did our conversation break. This was when I nearly fell in love with Utrecht.

Afterwards it had just passed one o’clock, and I returned to Kunstliefde. The head of the gallery, a really talkative artist with an obsession with Anselm Kiefer caught me looking at 3D paintings without 3D glasses and immediately assisted. Once we engaged in conversation he told me I should have just come in earlier and not bothered walking away.

Here was another fascinating character from Utrecht, who, bizarrely, seemed more interested in my own residency in Iceland than I was in this incredible open 2-storey gallery that he was clearly one of the heads of operations at. His name was Dirk. We talked passionately about a range of topics, but he could scarcely contain his excitement when he told me he would be meeting Kiefer that coming Friday after being wrought with jealousy at his girlfriend’s one-person media pass to the artist’s unveiling of an installation in Amsterdam, coupled with a talk from the German himself. After a coincidental meeting with one of the gallery administrators at a wild party that Dirk arrived at through a series of incidents that he recounted to me in detail, he was extended his own personal invitation, to his utter joy and delight.

Aside from the anecdotes, waffle and miscellaneous chat, Dirk also took the time to explain the show on the walls of this avant-garde hothouse. The gallery itself was a duplex unit, with tall ceilings and an industrial air, which was accented by concrete juttings at the joints in walls and iron railings on the staircase and upper bannister. Along the walls were exorbitantly priced but extraordinary works of art. Dirk explained that the gallery is run by a group of Utrecht artists who have been in existence for over 200 years and once included Willem de Kooning. This group, although regularly exhibiting works in Kunstliefde themselves, extended an invitation to workers in the media industry who have an interest in art / who practice art themselves to submit works for an open call. The stuff produced was nothing short of sublime, and the show was outstanding in every sense. An eclectic yet knitted display of mainly two-dimensional work, I was again impressed and inspired upon seeing the display. This was when I fell in love with Utrecht.

Funny city, about the size and population of Cork, and just as bustling and active, and like Cork I have taken an instant shine to the place. Maybe this is my ideal size of city… Also on that note, pretty much an identical population in Utecht (or Cork) to the entire population of Iceland.

Onwards then, and back to my car, where, I was assured by the head of Kunsthandel Meijer that I would have a ticket, as they check regularly. I didn’t.

On the open road again, and heading for a 4-hour drive to Bremen. Over the border and through the woods, passing many a chain of pylons, spotting so many huge windmills in both countries that I began to wonder if Ireland had missed an E.U. memo somewhere. Again I noticed the abundance of lorries perpetually conveying concealed loads across the continent. As I drove past them with the music off I noticed that each lorry engine emits a unique drawling, wailing howl that builds as you speed toward the front, then vanishes entirely just as you pass.

A word to the wise: Do not dare slow down on the German motorways. As far as I can gather there is a lane for cars and a lane for lorries and whatever ridiculous car-shuddering speed the cars are driving at, that is your speed and you stick to it. There are speed limit signs but apparently they’re ostentatious distractions that must be ignored. Either that or the 120 was miles/hour – I’m not sure.

Reaching Bremen I went directly to the central train station and hijacked somebody’s internet to search for a good hostel. I didn’t find any and was so immediately put off by the city so I headed on down the road toward Hamburg.

I had decided to stop and sleep in the front seat at Hamburg but when I got there it was around 9 p.m. Discounting a couple of stops for food and leg-stretching, I had been on the road for five hours. That said, I was in the mood for continuing so I pressed on toward Flensburg near the Danish border until my eyelids started to get heavy and I pulled over in a truck-stop.

Getting out and stretching my legs, my persistent cough persisted as I went to get a cup of coffee. Just after I arrived a van with black tinted windows and “Zoll” written on the side near the back wheel pulled up across from me and four heavy-set men got out inconspicuously with a couple of alsatians. I couldn’t remember what Zoll was but I was sure they were police of some kind, and the regular insecure paranoia of police presence came over me in waves telling me that they were staring at me. I felt very exposed and alone at that point. I left and got a coffee.

When I came back they were still staring, and the dogs were over near my car.

Nothing else came of it, and they drove off, seemingly satisfied.

I crawled into my sleeping bag in the front seat and read a few pages of Catch 22. A minute later I was blinded by headlights in front of me as an unmarked Mercedes pulled up and two men jumped out in hi-vis vests with “Zoll” on them. I rolled down the window nervously.

“Customs,” said the bubble-nosed, cheery ginger man at my window. Although he appeared quite comical with his round face and pin-hole glasses, and a constant ironic grimace, he also exuded confidence and authority and I figured he could probably break all my fingers just by looking at them. I did what every self-respecting Irishman would do in that situation. In my best culchie accent I barked out, “How’s it going?”

This seemed to catch him off-guard (he had clearly never done Garda Síochána 101) and he guffawed a small giggle before reassuming his authoritative and comical countenance. He asked the regular questions as his partner, a more naive, sparrow-like gentleman, poked and prodded and swabbed diligently. The lead-man made no secret they were looking for drugs. I assisted in every way as the flighty one probed all nooks and crannies, checking for hidden panels. I continued to make small-talk with the authoritative one which seemed to make him very uncomfortable. The drug test came up clean and they left without a fuss a few minutes later. I was genuinely surprised that this was the first hassle I had had on this trip (driving a van from Ireland to Iceland seems like something that would arouse a little suspicion from time to time) but this was all I had.

Friday, May 6th 2011 – Aalborg’s Welfare State

On I went the following morning, not stopping now until my journey reached its end. Denmark became more hilly, less built-up, more agriculturally based and more green than the last two countries, and for a while, watching the dairy farms roll by my window, I felt like I was driving at home. Except that I was on the wrong side of the road. And it was a real road. And there were still constant sightings of the towering windmills everywhere I looked.

Crossing an awe-inspiring suspension bridge near Vejle, I saw the most wonderful panorama Denmark was to offer, looking down on a beautiful fishing town surrounded by woodlands. I’m not sure what the town was, and I am sure that I should have been paying closer attention to the road, but the sight was majestic. Boats trawled through illuminated green-blue water in what was either a lake or the Scandinavian Sea, and different coloured rooftops reflected up brightly and invitingly but I couldn’t stop.

I ploughed on to Aalborg as quickly as I could, not in the mood for any more stops or driving. I had a place to sleep tonight thanks to Couchsurfing and I was looking forward to meeting my hosts who had suggested beers for the evening. I liked them already.

The Danish seem to like terracotta red a lot. A hell of a lot of the country’s buildings are terracotta red, including the walls and roofs, but there you go. Maybe it was the vibrant yellows, blues and greens that the Dutch used on their own homes and towns that formed a contrast in my mind, I’m not sure. But it did seem excessive.

Aalborg is a quaint city with a great big bridge and a very confusing road system. Getting around here was the first trouble that I had on the roads since leaving Ireland. The city had a convoluted traffic system that moved in circles and I kept getting lost. There were a lot of banks on all the main and side-streets. In my tiredness and frustration I strayed onto the wrong side a couple of times but thankfully nothing came of it besides a few belligerent Danish faces behind windscreen glass.

I stopped in a cobble-stoned market area and went for a stroll, taking in the nice market stalls but not buying a bloody thing (people always said that Denmark was expensive but my God they didn’t say how expensive!). There were banks all around, five in the main square itself. I was encapsulated by a little model train shop that had Deutche Bahn models for around €500 that brought back great memories to me. The models were incredibly intricate and really very beautiful and I decided there and then that when I retire I will endeavour to become one of those strange people with a model train fascination.

Visited a couple of small galleries and met another couple of artists here but was less impressed in terms of quality, and they weren’t too forthcoming with chat either so I left these behind. I went on up to the train station at Liebholz, near where I would be staying. I went to take a few photos of what I later learned was an old cement factory. There were quite a few banks here too. Denmark has a lot of banks.

Finally I met my Couchsurfing* host, Hans, who took me down the freeway toward his home, scolding me later for not having my lights on at one point, which is highly illegal in Denmark. I also learned that it is highly illegal to carry a blade of any kind (even a stanley knife unless you are on official duty and it is in a toolbox) and possession will leave you in jail for seven days. I am glad that I was never searched in Denmark as I had both a sharp kitchen knife for picnicking and a stanley knife in the car, neither of which I was too willing to give up.

*If you are unfamiliar with Couchsurfing, hit that link NOW and get familiar

I learned a great deal from Hans and his lovely girlfriend Melie as I got drunk with them later. Unlike many Europeans, the Danes thankfully know how to drink. We cleaned off a bottle of wine, a series of German beers (smuggled) and then some nice scotch before slurred, messy bed-time. I learned that Denmark has a fully functioning welfare state. It was really refreshing to hear residents of a country compliment having to pay high taxes in exchange for good roads and schools and fully functional public healthcare. Despite the current right-wing government, the welfare state was as embedded as the pathetic Irish business model, and as a result little could change under a right-wing group. Taxes can’t be suddenly halved once they are so high. It was bliss to hear these people talk about the system in such high regard. And it is true. All of a sudden I understood and sympathised with the high prices – the roads worked. The water was clean. The hospitals were, I was told, efficient. People, including Melie the politics major, were paid (!) to go to college. Every single citizen!

Much music and photography was discussed (Hans is a photographer and was full of useful tips). Balloo the black labrador was insatiably friendly and completely unaware of his own strength, which became more of a problem the less my balance subsisted. Eventually and inevitably the night ended and I spent a sorry drunken while desperately pumping an air mattress up with a pump that whistled piercingly every time I pushed on it. The quieter I tried to be (so as to not wake the couple sleeping next door) the louder it wheezed until I gave up and slept on a half-pumped bed.

Stage 3: From Aalborg to Skagastrond (Saturday, May 8th – Tuesday, May 10th)