Brottets bana—a life of crime

In the southern part of Malmö is the quiet suburb of Limhamn, where we lived for a few months 15 years ago. In times past, Limhamn’s prosperity was underpinned by trade in two abundant commodities: herrings and limestone. Even the name of the town, lim hamn, means “lime harbour”.

Limestone was used in cement manufacture

The quarry from which the limestone was extracted is called the kalkbrott (chalk quarry) and is the biggest hole in the ground in northern Europe, extending over a square kilometre to a depth of 65 metres. I took some of these photos in January of this year and some in July. No prizes for guessing which is which!

As most of the excavation is well below sea level, the floor of the kalkbrott may well be the lowest-lying land in Sweden. Since its abandonment, it has been left to nature and the various levels have been recolonised by vegetation.

The limestone mined here was transported by a private narrow-gauge railway to a cement factory on the coast. Initially, the trains were drawn by horses, later with steam. In the 1960s, 2 km of the route was replaced with conveyor belts in an underground tunnel. Mining at the quarry ended in the 1990s, but the disused rail tracks still remained when we lived here in 2001. The tracks, fencing and signalling were removed in 2008 and the wayleave reverted to the city in 2009.

Compare these two photos taken 15 years apart:

Both photos show the Methodist church on the corner of Kalkbrottsgatan and Linnégatan in the centre of Limhamn. The one on the left, taken in the autumn of 2001, shows the railroad crossing signal and boom, and the tracks running along the street. In the photo on the right, taken this weekend, the rail line has been converted to a cycle track.

There used to be warning signs on the line saying “Gå ej i brottets bana“, which is a very clever double meaning. It straightforwardly means “don’t walk on the quarry railway”; but it also means “don’t embark on a life of crime”.

It’s a little ironic therefore that both the quarry and the cement factory have featured as scenes of crime in Nordic TV dramas. The very moving Wallander film Hemligheten (Secrets) opens with the discovery of a murdered boy in the kalkbrott. And the cement factory served as a suitably grim industrial setting for at least one typically tense episode of The Bridge.

Living Swedish style

Our home for these two weeks is in a lovely leafy suburb about 5 km from the centre of Malmö. It is a quietly affluent area with huge parks and an astonishing number of wild rabbits. Our house adjoins a cycle and pedestrian path, part of a network that is largely separate from the roads, so that you can walk or cycle around safely without having to deal with vehicle traffic.

View from our bedroom towards the city centre

We rented the house through Airbnb. On Tuesday morning we briefly met the owners; they were just about to set off on a two-day drive of their own, for a holiday in Croatia. They are completely laid back about having us living in their home; the only “rule” they posted on their Airbnb listing was “treat our house as if it were your own”. They also left us a bottle of wine with a note inviting us to help ourselves to the tomatoes and cucumbers growing in their glasshouse.


We’re also free to use their bicycles, including this handy (and somewhat unwieldy) cargo bike for doing grocery shopping.


Two things we noticed very quickly: there are no curtains and no clothes storage in any of the bedrooms.


The lack of curtains is typically Swedish; we had noticed years ago that as you walk around a Swedish neighbourhood in the evening you can see all the people in their houses and apartments going about their evening routines. The explanation I have heard is that Swedes don’t approve of having something to hide; if you are not engaging in nefarious activities, why would you need curtains?

What we hadn’t realised is that in summer, the lack of curtains means you are woken every morning at 5 a.m. by the full force of the sun shining directly in your face like a 100 MW laser beam. Which is good in a way, because it means you get up early and make the most of the day.

The lack of any wardrobes, closets, hanging space or drawers for your clothes is a bit more problematic. It makes for a really uncluttered look—the only things in your living space are things of beauty such as photographs and artworks that you have specifically chosen. But it’s quite inconvenient. For these two weeks, we’ve got around it by just living out of our suitcases; we’ve left our suitcases open on the floor of one of the children’s bedrooms.

The dogs are very happy to have a big garden to run around in. They were predictably excited at first by all the rabbits, but there are so many that they may actually be starting to get bored with them.


Driving to Sweden—day 2: Monday

Another early start on Monday morning as our ship arrived in Rotterdam at 8:30 a.m. (which was 7:30 Irish time). As we entered the port, we stood out on deck to watch the scenery glide past. I was able to point out the new coal-fired station at Maasvlakte.

There was some delay getting access to the locked kennels, so we were left standing around impatiently with all the other dog owners, waiting to be reunited with our pets. But by 9:00 we had driven off the ship and entered the Netherlands, with no passport or customs checks of any kind.

“This could be Rotterdam, or anywhere…”

The next leg of the journey was a 600 km drive across the Netherlands and Germany to the port of Travemünde, near Lübeck, in the north of Germany. The Netherlands is Shiro’s 10th country, and Miffy’s 6th. The weather was hot and sunny.

Thanks to the excellent motorway system in the Netherlands, and the surprisingly light traffic (for a Monday morning), we were able to drive across the whole country in about 2 and a half hours. We stopped to buy sandwiches for a picnic lunch at a service station near Hengelo, before crossing into Germany at around 11:30.

Picnic lunch at a service area near Osnabrück, Germany

Despite getting stuck in some long traffic jams on the A1 (and seeing the aftermath of 3 traffic accidents), we made very good time and arrived in Lübeck at around 6 in the evening.

Only 200 km left to go. Better watch out for that right turn coming up after 138 km!

We didn’t know much about Lübeck, but had been told that it’s a very beautiful and historically-interesting city. And so it proved.

The Holsten Gate, Lübeck


Gabled trading houses along the canal


Monument to the composer Brahms

We didn’t have much time for sightseeing in Lübeck before it was time to go to the port and board the Finnlines ferry to Malmö. This overnight ferry, with its spacious and pet-friendly cabins, was by far the most comfortable part of the journey, both for us and the dogs.

Comfortable accommodation on the Finntrader

Early the next morning, the ship passed under the Öresund bridge and, 2 days after leaving Dublin, we arrived in Malmö, our final destination.



Driving to Sweden—day 1: Sunday

We arrived in Malmö at 7 a.m. on Tuesday after 2 days, 3 ferries and 1,000 km of driving.

We had an early start on Sunday, so we had packed everything into the car on Saturday night, ready to go. On the way to Dublin Port we stopped off at Sandymount to give the dogs a short walk.


Irish Ferries only requires you to be there 30 minutes before the sailing time, but we were there at 7:30 for an 8:45 sailing.


Driving onto the ferry to Holyhead. The holiday starts here! The dogs stay in the car during the crossing, which only takes 2 hours.


Approaching the Welsh coast.


The drive across Wales and England from Holyhead to Hull was leisurely: we had about 10 hours to cover 360 km. We stopped for lunch in the Welsh castle town of Conwy, which is an amazing place (and a UNESCO world heritage site).


As we drove over the Pennines on the M62, there was a sign saying “M62 summit – highest motorway in England (372 m – 1,221 feet)”. I am always amazed by how rural and green the north of England is.

A stop (and a cache) at a motorway service station in Yorkshire. That’s Ferrybridge power station in the background.


Arriving in Hull, the stats for the journey so far showed 382 km at 23.4 km/l (65.5 miles per UK gallon).


For the P&O ferry crossing from Hull to Rotterdam, you have to arrive, and board, at least 90 minutes before departure. In fact, if you wish you can board as early as 4 p.m. for the 8:30 sailing, check into your cabin and enjoy the facilities on board.


The dogs spend the journey in cages in a locked room on the car deck. Owners are allowed to visit by appointment, before 10 p.m. There is a tiny enclosed area of the car deck allocated for “exercise”, which is a bit of a joke. Unfortunately some of the other dogs were very distressed and making a lot of noise, which in turn distressed all the other dogs. The next morning, when it was time to get the dogs and return to the car, there was a long delay while we waited for security to come and unlock the kennels.

Of all the ferry companies we’ve used, P&O is the least dog-friendly and I wouldn’t recommend it.


The ship is huge, and the North Sea was uncharacteristically calm, which made for a very comfortable crossing. After a good dinner and a couple of beers while enjoying the song-and-dance show in the bar, it was time to go back to the cabin and get a few hours sleep.


I discovered netsuke on a visit to the British Museum many years ago. I was immediately charmed by the beauty, detail and whimsy of this miniature art form. Later, netsuke were introduced to a wider audience by author Edmund de Waal, in his book The Hare with Amber Eyes (2010).

Skull with lizard


This week I once again had the opportunity to spend a few hours in the British Museum, where I sought out the relative tranquillity of the Japan rooms on the 5th floor.


The museum has thousands of netsuke in its collection, of which only a small sample is on display at any time, so the ones in these photos are not the same as I had seen on my previous visit.


Octopus and a jar; Two horses; Rabbit
A fish and a dove

These human figures are none too flattering, but the artistry and detail are delightful. Check out the movement in the Ainu woman’s dress and sleeves. The Dutchman has a cockerel in his right hand, and some kind of implement that looks like a golf club in his left.

Chinese trader and Dutch trader
Ainu mother and child

This image of a monkey trainer is compelling – the man is grotesque with a manic grin; the poor monkey seems less happy.

Monkey trainer

Look at the bulging veins on this three-clawed demon arm:

severed arm of oni from Rashomon legend
Bat in a shell

This piece consists of a beautifully formed aubergine (eggplant) which splits into two halves. One half contains a carving of Mt Fuji, the other a hawk perched atop a yardarm or banner.

Hawk inside an aubergine
Lion-dog with a ball

オーロラ Aurora

About 15 years ago, I went on a brief trip to the Arctic island of Spitsbergen (Svalbard) with my friend, David Willis. Recently, watching the TV series Fortitude, I was reminded of our visit to that extraordinary place at the edge of the world.

Arctic map
Svalbard. It’s way north

Fortitude, although filmed in Iceland, is set in Svalbard. Only the name has been changed. Everything else (the Norwegian governor, the coal mining and research settlements, the Russian settlement nearby, the nightclub, the “more polar bears than humans”, the legal requirement to carry a rifle for defence against bears) is immediately recognisable to anyone who has been there.

Looking down the Longyear valley towards the town

All my life, I have been fascinated by the far north, so when I discovered that there were scheduled flights from Oslo to Longyearbyen, I leapt at the opportunity. David agreed to join me on this crazy adventure. In advance of the trip I read everything I could find about Svalbard (including terrifying stories of visitors and students who, having ignored the warnings to carry a rifle, were eaten by bears).

We were there at night. It was December, and the sun would not rise until February. It remained pitch dark the entire time we were there; even at midday there was not a trace of light in the southern sky. So the photos on this page were taken in the dark.

It’s hard to get used to the polar night. Walking around in the dark, I kept thinking “I wonder what these mountains, this valley, will look like in the daylight tomorrow morning”, forgetting that there would be no daylight, no morning.

We chose not to carry rifles while walking around in and near the settlement. This resulted in a constant state of low-level terror as we stumbled around the snowy landscape in the dark. There are lots of small reindeer in Svalbard. They have short legs and white bottoms. In the dark, a reindeer looks much like a polar bear. (In the dark, to a sufficiently nervous tourist, a pile of snow or rocks looks like a polar bear.)

Svalbard reindeer. What do you mean, that looks nothing like a polar bear?
Reindeer waiting for us to go away

The aurora borealis was a huge highlight of the trip. Playing high overhead all the time, curtains of green light moving through the sky, lending an air of magic and unreality to the scene. When I saw it, I just lay down on the snow on the hillside, staring up at it.

Aurora over the Gruvefjell

The nightclub in Longyear town is called Huset (the house). Huset is in the “suburb” of Nybyen, 2 kilometres up the Longyear valley, at the other end of the only road  on the island. If you want to go to any of the other settlements, you have to go by snow machine, by dogsled, by boat, by air or on foot.

The hill overlooking Nybyen is called Sarkofagen – the sarcophagus

On our first “night” we were sitting in the hotel bar, and at a certain point everyone around us started chanting “huset, huset“. Then a bus arrived and everyone piled in, so David and I did too. On the bus, they kept chanting “huset, huset” and we were amazed that they seemed so excited about it, given that it’s essentially the only nightlife on the island. But many of the miners spend the week in Sveagruva, only coming back to Longyear town at the weekend to let their hair down.

Huset was a bit wild – there are far more men than women; there’s a bit of a “tough guy” frontier culture and the drink is cheap (at least by comparison with Norway). But it was good fun and we stayed out of trouble.

We hadn’t brought any winter clothes – no coat, no hat – when we got on the bus to the nightclub. In fact, dressed for the warmth of the hotel bar, we weren’t even wearing jumpers when we followed everyone into the bus. When we emerged from the nightclub, there we were in our shirtsleeves. We couldn’t help laughing at the absurdity of this; standing there in our shirtsleeves at 78° north in the middle of December, in the middle of the icy wilderness, in the middle of the polar night. We walked back to the hotel, drunk and happy, fortunate that the conditions were unseasonably warm.

Safely back at the hotel

There are many adventurous things to do on Svalbard. You can go on guided day-long or multi-day trips by snow machine or by boat to see amazing things, both man-made (abandoned settlements) and natural (bird cliffs and glaciers). These activities are quite expensive, however, and may not be available in December when it’s dark and the sea is frozen. We signed up for one activity; a visit to one of the coal mines. This coal mine is rather special, because it’s the location of the Global Seed Vault, a secure “gene bank” where seeds are stored as a backup in case of catastrophe. I found a small piece of hard coal and kept it as a souvenir.

I hope I will one day have the opportunity to go back to Svalbard, to experience once again this utterly special place. Maybe in spring next time!

一番高い—a visit to the highest restaurant

The Burj Khalifa is the highest building in the world. On the 122nd floor is at.mosphere restaurant, billed as the world’s highest restaurant. Yesterday, we went there for lunch.

Lunch at 442 metres above ground level doesn’t come cheap. In fact, everything at at.mosphere is astonishingly, hilariously expensive, as if money has become disconnected from all meaning. But this post isn’t about how much it cost, so let’s just say it was the most expensive lunch I have ever eaten, and is very likely to remain so.

The occasion was Yuko’s birthday. Making a lunch reservation was a bit of a palaver, involving several e-mails back and forth, including instructions about what to wear:

Our dress code is Smart elegant and/or National dress:
Men: Must wear shirts with a collar and sleeves and closed fine shoes. No shorts allowed. Sandals are allowed if worn with National dress
Ladies: Elegant feminine attire. Beach sandals are not allowed.

Access to the restaurant is via the lobby of the Armani hotel, a super-chic hotel with an impressive array of supercars parked outside.

Cars parked in front of the Armani Hotel, Dubai

Before arriving in Dubai, we had been warned just to get a taxi anywhere we want to go, as it’s a very pedestrian-unfriendly city. This was very sound advice, which I duly chose to ignore. This resulted in our arriving for our special-occasion birthday lunch half-an-hour late, a little sweaty and flustered, having found considerable difficulty in finding a way to access the Burj on foot. I wondered whether we were the first people ever to attempt to do so, and indeed we were stopped by a surprised security guard while walking up the ramp.

Entering the minimalist air-conditioned elegance of the hotel was like entering a different world, a kind of haven for the super-rich, whose every need is anticipated and seen to immediately without fuss. We were greeted very politely and shown to a special express elevator with just 2 floor buttons.

Elevator to level 123

The elevator whisked us at high-speed up to level 123, from which we had to go down 1 flight of stairs to reach the restaurant.

Welcome to At.mosphere

We were greeted with great friendliness by our waitress, who was very attentive throughout our meal.

The view from our window seat was northwards towards Dubai creek and Sharjah, with a collection of tall buildings in the foreground and a desert landscape stretching inland to our right. Hazy conditions made it hard to make out much detail looking along the coast.

View of Dubai

First we were presented with a little plate of 3 amuse-bouches. These little salty bread snacks were a welcome treat as we were actually really hungry by this stage.


Next a young man came over to offer us a choice of fancy bread, all baked in-house: a French baguette, a croissant with goat’s cheese or some ciabatta. He had a trolley with two great cylinders of butter, from each of which he whipped some onto a little plate for us while explaining to use their special virtues and French origins. The butter with seaweed was really good; silky and salty.

I ordered a roots soup with coconut and shiitake mushroom to start and a Patagonian cod main course. Yuko had a foie gras terrine starter and flank of wagyu beef with shallot confit and aligot (French for mashed potato, apparently) for main.

The root soup was deliciously thick and creamy, with Thai flavours like chili and galangal. I was pleased that we were offered more bread whenever we needed it; I hate running out of bread before I finish my soup, and I wanted to try the different kinds.

roots soup

The cod dish was amazing; most notably for the flavours and textures of the risotto, which was made with black rice and lumps of meaty parmesan cheese.

Patagonian cod with Venere risotto

Of course, a visit to at.mosphere is only partly about the food; people go there for the novelty of visiting the world’s highest building, and for the views that entails. And one of the best views is from the men’s toilets, which overlook the lake where the fountain display takes place. The multi-storey buildings look just like toys.

View from the gents

We decided not to go for dessert, but a surprise was in store: a choux-pastry swan with a single candle and a “Happy Birthday” message for Yuko. I thought that was a lovely touch, and in fact it was really good.

Birthday swan

We ordered some coffee to go with the swan, and this came with yet another surprise – a plate of fancy treats. The “lollipops” consisting of marshmallow-covered pineapple, dusted with pieces of orange sherbet, were especially good. Also included were mini-eclairs, a banana custard sweet and a light and moist canelé. We were also given a little basket of madeleines.

And at the end of all that, Yuko was given a little bag of chocolates to take home.

Treats served with coffee

After we had eaten, our waitress gave us a little tour of the rest of at.mosphere: a private dining room and the lounge bar. The bar is apparently very popular as a place to watch the sunset while sipping extremely expensive drinks; you can also enjoy “luxurious high tea” there for around €150 per person. The people in the lounge were far more elegantly dressed than we were; most of the women were wearing cocktail dresses.

Towards the coast at Jumeirah Beach and The World islands (almost invisible in the haze)
South along the coast toward the Burj Al Arab and the Palm islands

In each area, we were given the opportunity to take pictures of the views and our waitress took pictures of us with various backdrops. She turned out to be quite a skilled photographer.

Dara and Yuko in the lobby of at.mosphere

At last it was time to leave this rarefied world and return to the real world far below, where (lesson learned) we took a taxi back to our hotel.