A cabinet of curiosity for the people

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Joseph Denais museum: the cabinet of curiosity that survived the passage of time

Beaufort-en-Vallée, September 2016 — Beaufort’s Joseph Denais museum, in western France’s Anjou, is a survivor. Built in 1905, it has the proud resplendence of a turn-of-the century post-industrial-revolution institution whose ambition was to enlighten the local community.  These days, with its collection of stuffed animals, Egyptian sarcophagi, Japanese porcelain and impressionist paintings, it has the charming incongruity of a life-size cabinet of curiosity that has miraculously made it into the 21st century.

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Innsbruck: a walk down the hillside

Theresien Kirche: the balcony on the clock tower
Theresien Kirche: the balcony on the clock tower

Innsbruck, October 2015 – The tiny balcony protruding on the west side of the Theresien Kirche, in Innsbruck’s Hungerburg suburb, is one of the few external ornaments on the austere 1930s church. Its shadow, already long at nearly 4pm, gives fleeting depth to the plain off-white wall. Inside, the afternoon sun glides over the simple benches and lights up the post-war frescoes painted by Austrian artist Max Weiler in 1945.

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White and gold: autumn days and first snowfalls in Val d’Isère

Above the Piste L in the Laisinant
Above the Piste L in the Laisinant

Val d’Isère, Oct. 2015 — We’ve been walking up the trail above the L piste towards the Ouillette lake, just up from the Laisinant, for nearly two hours. On a summer’s day, this takes no longer than an hour. But the snow that fell for nearly 24 hours yesterday is making our progress much slower on this Autumn afternoon.

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Mellerud to Stockholm: watching out for elk

Mellerud: the little house in the Swedish prairie
Mellerud: the little house in the Swedish prairie

“Seriously, you should be careful,” says L, who had a near-miss with an elk on her way back home at dusk a few months ago. Her partner M warns us bluntly: “Elks are more dangerous than other animals. They’re tall, so if you hit them their legs go under the car while the body goes straight into your windscreen; that’s two tonnes of animal landing right on you.”

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Göteborg: from industrial powerhouse to boho chic

Göteborg: the city with a friendly buzz
Göteborg: the city with a friendly buzz

We push the door to Göteborg’s humble cathedral, whose warm sandstone and pale brick façade cuts a slight silhouette against the summer sky. Near the choir, a singer and his pianist are rehearsing. His voice rises in the peaceful, modest interior and fills the cool off-white walls. We sit for a while, thieving a few musical moments of what he later tells us is from Dvorak’s Biblical Songs.

Today’s drive is much shorter than previous days, a mere 80km from Aalborg to Frederikshaven where we take a ferry across to Göteborg. It’s sunny, although not especially warm. We drive on roads lined with more lupins and daisies, aspens and willows. The countryside is gently undulating and, above our heads, white clouds are torn in long hair-thin strips.

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Aarhus: modern robots and Nordic heroes

Aarhus cathedral: white-washed walls and colourful frescoes
Aarhus cathedral: white-washed walls and colourful frescoes

Our hotel just outside Aalborg is in an old country house amid sprawling meadows on the edge of a wood. It’s a balmy afternoon, with the sun still high in the sky at nearly seven o’clock and just a few clouds disappearing off the horizon. It’s the kind of place where you want to relax in one of the salons and admire the view, a glass of chilled Chablis in hand. I enthusiastically grab the wine list from our waitress who shares my preference for French dry white wine. “Here we are: Chablis. How much is 620 Danish kroner?”. Dr K quickly checks the exchange rate and replies crisply: “How much is the Chilean white?”.

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Flensburg: cobbled streets and pig-fest on the waterfront

Flensburg: cobbled street behind the Johannis Kirche
Flensburg: cobbled street behind the Johannis Kirche

The drive from Osnabrück to Flensburg starts under showers and grey skies, but by mid-morning the clouds temporarily clear as we veer off the motorway towards Buxtehude. The road goes through the Altes Land, an area developed by Dutch settlers in the 14th century, and it’s a pleasant change from the relentless motorway. It’s fertile land still, with orchards and soft fruits, although Christmas trees appear to be a popular line too.

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Osnabrück: city of peace and mellow friendliness

Osnabrück's townhall: where Europe started
Osnabrück’s townhall: where Europe started

The people of Osnabrück are the happiest in Germany, according to a country-wide survey ten years ago which measured living standards, amenities, and public services. That was before the financial crisis and the pan-European austerity drive, and today it’s not immediately obvious why the town would top the happiness charts. But it looks friendly enough, and we’re certainly happy to be there, the first stopover of our four-week road trip to Finland.

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Sisteron: from the Alps to the garrigue

The neat but ruined 11th century Chapelle Saint Donat
The neat but ruined 11th century Chapelle Saint Donat

As we drive away from Barcelonnette heading south towards Sisteron, the landscape gradually changes. The mountains are softer, less mineral, greener. The forests, fields and orchards tell us we are slowly entering Provence. Deciduous oak gives way to the shorter, evergreen oak and Provençal pine, and we see the first olive groves; the houses take on a paler shade of ochre, their roofs covered with terracotta tiles rather than flat stone.

We are taking the picturesque route, winding our way down on B roads through mountain passes and hillside villages. Occasionally there are signs for small, almost unknown, ski resorts such as Montclar, reminding us we haven’t quite left the Alps yet. This J-shaped itinerary involves going as far south as Dignes and then, as we reach the Durance valley, veering west and back up north to Sisteron.

From that point, we’re traveling partly on the ‘Route Napoléon’, the road which the former emperor, having escaped from Elba in early 1815, took to avoid running into the royalist troops in lower Provence on his way up to Waterloo.

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Barcelonnette: from the Ubaye valley to Mexico and back

Villa Puebla: one of the few dozens of 19th century 'Mexican' villas
Villa Puebla: one of the few dozens of 19th century ‘Mexican’ villas

Godfather P wastes no time in going up to the youthful-looking stallholder to say he recognises him from a television programme. Local fruit farmer Nicolas Tron is, after all, partly responsible for our visit to Barcelonnette, the town in the Ubaye valley, in the Alpes de Haute Provence, famous for its so-called Mexican villas.

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