Matthew Hart

Matthew Hart

I'm a Brisbane-based professional who loves leaving Brisbane to travel the world and ski. When not travelling, I spend a lot of time thinking about travel and planning the next trip. Always ready to be inspired. Always ready to escape.

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Just as Shakespeare has confounded high school students for generations, it seems the playwright has been doing the same to historians for even longer. This week, new research found that as well as hoarding grain during food shortages, the Bard was also threatened with jail for tax evasion.

Hard to believe, but 400 years on Shakespeare still manages to keep a fair few secrets up his sleeve. This became apparent to my friend and I when we visited Shakespeare's hometown of Stratford-Upon-Avon in England.

William Shakespeare

As you can imagine, the town has well and truly contracted "Shakespeare Fever" and attracts bus loads of cashed-up, Bard-loving tourists. After all, this is the town where Shakespeare was born, grew up, lived some of his adult life, and was buried.

But what surprised us most was how little is actually known about Shakespeare... and how there continues to be doubt about whether he actually wrote all of his plays or not. Granted he did live several hundred years ago, but given his prominent role in English literature we had assumed every facet of his life had already been discovered and documented.

Boats in the River Avon in Stratford-Upon-Avon named after female characters in William Shakespeare's plays
Boats in the River Avon named after female characters in Shakespeare's plays

We visited one of the town's main "pilgrim" sites called Shakespeare's Birthplace - a 16th century half-timbered house on Henley Street which is now a museum. This is believed to have been the Shakespeare family home where William was born, grew up and spent the first five years with his wife Anne Hathaway.

Reading the museum's information boards, we noticed the liberal use of the following types of phrases: "he almost certainly would have...", "it's believed he...", "like others at the time he may have...", "he quite possibly would have..." and so on.

The birthplace of William Shakespeare in Stratford-Upon-Avon, England
"Believed to be" Shakespeare's birthplace

The birthplace of William Shakespeare in Stratford-Upon-Avon, England
Did Shakespeare once walk through this door? "Quite possibly."

The vagueness is justified.

For a man who seemingly couldn't put his pen down, doubters note that this not a single piece of evidence Shakespeare actually wrote anything. There are no manuscripts, letters or other documents in his own hand. Even the spelling of Shakespeare's name is up for debate as the only surviving examples of his handwriting are six scrawled signatures where his surname is spelt several ways.

The birthplace of William Shakespeare in Stratford-Upon-Avon, England
The house where Shakespeare "almost certainly" grew up

We had the distinct impression that we thought we knew more about the man before we had actually walked into the museum. However, thanks to the local Holy Trinity Church, there is more concrete evidence about Shakespeare's life.

The Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-Upon-Avon, England, where William Shakespeare was baptised and buried
Holy Trinity Church: Shakespeare was baptised and buried here

Here they have written records about his baptism on 26 April 1564 ("possibly" in the damaged medieval font on display) and burial on 25 April 1616. Interestingly it does not have any account of his wedding to Anne Hathaway; other churches claim they were the venue.

The Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-Upon-Avon, England, where William Shakespeare was baptised and buried
The church's damaged medieval font in which Shakespeare was"likely" to have been baptised in

The Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-Upon-Avon, England, where William Shakespeare was baptised and buried
Holy Trinity Church which Shakespeare "may have" visited regularly while growing up

Frustratingly, even the grave indicated as being William Shakespeare's doesn't actually bear his name (the graves either side of his belong to wife Anne and daughter Susanna). Instead it has the following inscription (which he "possibly" wrote himself) warning anyone against moving his bones.

"Good friend fur Jesus sake forebeare
To digg the dust encloased heare
Bleste be ye man yt spares thes stones,
And curst be he yt moves my bones"

William Shakespeare's grave inside the Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-Upon-Avon, England
Shakespeare's grave inside the church

And it seems he was already developing a following not long after his death with a funerary monument built into the church wall.

William Shakespeare's funerary monument at the Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-Upon-Avon, England
Shakespeare's funerary monument on the church's wall

The church also has a glass case with a first edition of the King James Bible from 1611, just before Shakespeare's death. Apparently it is usually open at Psalm 46; 46 also being Shakespeare's age in 1611.

King James Bible inside the Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-Upon-Avon, England
King James Bible inside the church

At the end of the day, perhaps it doesn't really matter that we don't know a great deal about Shakespeare himself. "His" plays have already shaped English literature and how he will be remembered.

What is known is that generations of school children, and others, will continue to struggle finding great detail when they are next forced to write an assignment on William Shakespeare.

My friend and I had hoped that we would just "stumble across" Greta Garbo's grave at Stockholm's Skogskyrkogarden.

 

Given the status of the Swedish-born Hollywood star we assumed her grave would be easy to spot, or at the very least there would be a signpost every three metres pointing us in the right direction.

 

But it wasn't long after we arrived at Skogskyrkogarden that we realised our assumptions were wrong.

 

 

This way to a the forest / cemetery maze where we would spend the afternoon

 

Calling Skogskyrkogarden a cemetery is a little like calling Buckingham Palace a "dwelling".   It's huge.   So huge it has lots of subsections of forested graves worthy of being cemeteries in their own right.   So huge it had a shuttle bus with bus stops.

 

So how to find Greta?

 

While signage was limited, we found cemetery sections which matched the right period for when Greta died.

 

The expansive entrance to Skogskyrkogarden

However, after a good 20 minutes of doing random sweeps along rows of graves we realised we were trying to find the proverbial needle in a haystack.

 

Somewhere in among the forest and cemetery was Greta

We thought we could possibly die there ourselves just trying to find the grave.   However, given it was a sunny autumn afternoon, and the calm and peaceful woodland setting, that might not be a bad thing.

 

A keen movie buff, my friend was determined to find Greta's grave.   Given the amount of time and energy we had devoted to the mission so far, I was also keen to track her down.

 

Many graves and many paths led to many dead ends

 

In life Garbo was famous for her elusive mystique and need for solitude.   It seems she had continued this trait after her death.  

 

So my friend risked a hefty mobile phone bill when he got home by using the internet on his Australian iPhone to see if we could find any more details on where Greta could be hiding.

 

The best we could find was a picture of her grave, but that was enough to give us renewed hope and enthusiasm for our mission.   We could tell the headstone looked relatively new and was red, which we hoped would stand her out from the crowd.  There were also some vague instructions about being in a particular section on the left of a path.

 

Lost in Skogskyrkogarden

The next hour passed slowly.  

 

My friend and I split up to "halve the work" as we scoured the rows of headstones.   We then lost each other and had to text each other to find each other again.  The search resumed.   We then started forgetting where we had looked and so retraced our steps.   We pounced hopefully on any grave with a red headstone (of which there were more than you would think).

 

When all seemed lost and we were about to give up, my friend wandered up some steps on a nearby mound (to the right of the path, not left as the internet had advised) and sure enough there she was.

 

Greta's grave was the only one on this raised area, which was surrounded by flower beds.   In hindsight it seems obvious that she would be here - separate, but still connected to the other graves and with areas for people to sit and contemplate.

 

It is not a flashy grave and the absence of any other inscription, such as the years she lived between 1905 and 1990, seem to imply that Greta Garbo was simply a Hollywood creation played by the real woman Greta Lovisa Gustafsson.

 

 

Greta's grave

 

It's a peaceful and beautiful setting with an elegant but simple headstone.  Perhaps a fitting location and grave for someone who is forever linked to the line "I want to be alone".

 

Greta's grave, and the Skogskyrkogarden itself, is a short distance from the heart of Stockholm.  If you go looking for it you're probably better off finding someone else other than us to guide you!

 

Some people think death is the end.

But it needn't be.

As the good people at the Sedlec Ossuary in the Czech Republic have proven, it seems we can all still be of some use after we leave this earth... as ornate interior decorations.

This chandelier at Sedlec Ossuary contains at least one of every bone in the human body

Be honest...who wouldn't one one of these in at least one room of their house

In what can only be described as Changing Rooms / 60 Minute Makeover / Backyard Blitz gone mad, Sedlec Ossuary put all those pesky bones that were literally lying around their cemetery and basement into the shape of vases, coats of arms, chandeliers and furniture.

Family crest made from bones at the Sedlec Ossuary in Kutna Hora, Czech Republic

Schwarzenberg family crest

Family crest made from bones at the Sedlec Ossuary in Kutna Hora, Czech Republic

Close-up of the crest


So why does a small Roman Catholic Chapel on the outskirts of Kutna Hora in the Czech Republic decide to forgo the painted feature wall, strand of fairy lights or other more conventional interior design trends in favour of lovely bones?

Well, it seems it was a victim of its own success.

This chandelier at Sedlec Ossuary contains at least one of every bone in the human body

This chandelier is equal parts beautiful and creepy

Sedlec Ossuary in Kutna Hora, Czech Republic, where every piece of art is made from human bones

Get me this for Christmas and I will love you forever


Way back in the thirteen century, the monastery's abbot went to the Holy Land and brought back some dirt from the site where Jesus was believed to have been crucified outside Jerusalem.

Obviously customs was pretty slack at this time and/or the abbot failed to declare this to them upon his return. Needless to say, it's not recommended anyone attempt this today as the Australian entry customs form clearly asks whether you carrying any dirt, seeds, plants or plant products.

Pile of skulls and femurs at Sedlec Ossuary

The scattered skull and femur look: very in, very now

Anyway, the abbot sprinkled this dirt around the cemetery prompting something of a property boom for the dead. Suddenly everyone in Central Europe wanted to be buried there. Subsequent plagues, wars and general passing of the years meant the cemetery became full to bursting.

Over time, a Gothic church built on the site started to be used as a storeroom for "old bones" to make way for "new bones" in the cemetery. The ossuary is estimated to contain the skeletons of up to 70,000 people. (Warning: "dad joke" ahead) Clearly people were just dying to be buried here.

Sedlec Ossuary in Kutna Hora, Czech Republic

Garlands of skulls (I know what I'll be using instead of tinsel this Christmas!)

In 1870, the local aristocratic Schwarzenberg family, realising they were not going to get into the pages of Vogue Living with this unholy mess, decided to bring some order to the chaos.

Liking the work of Czech woodcarver Frantisek Rint, they gave him a free reign on the piles of bones, resulting in a unique decorating style which can only be described as "Macabre Chic."

If there was an award for recycling at the time, I think he would have won it.

It actually would have been amazing to watch Rint at work; seeing him choose some bones over others and trying different creations. It also would have been interesting to see the local reaction at the time to his creations: "Is that Aunty Beryl?"

Sedlec Ossuary in Kutna Hora, Czech Republic

Close up of the garland of skulls

Sedlec Ossuary in Kutna Hora, Czech Republic

You just know when something is meant for your home


Stepping inside the ossuary, and once you've become accustomed to the gruesome factor, it's hard not to appreciate the artistry and craftsmanship which has gone into the pieces.

In a weird way, it also gives you an appreciation of human anatomy that would make your school biology teacher proud. After all, it's not often you come face to face with human skulls and bones.

And the whole concept certainly validates the old adage used by countless home improvement shows: you really don't need to spend a lot of money to make a big impact.

Sedlec Ossuary in Kutna Hora, Czech Republic

One idea to spice up your '90s painted feature wall)

It's also a startling reminder that we really are all the same deep down. Literally. Once you strip away the skin, tissue and muscles, we all just look like that.

And really, how much more macabre is having your bones converted into a chandelier compared to just having your bones rotting away under a tombstone. If anything, it's nice you're still being of appreciated long after you've gone.

Knowing that design trends fall out of fashion only to later come back into vogue, you can't help but wonder if the "bone look" is the next one to be resurrected?

What do you think, Better Homes and Gardens?

I prefer to think that I'm travelling solo.  


But judging how the two Japanese ladies on the chair lift recoiled in horror when I told them I was solo, they obviously thought I was travelling alone.


The two ladies were part of a group of 30 who had come on a tour to ski in Hakuba from Yokohama, about 300km away.  To them, coming all the way from Australia to ski here by yourself seemed incomprehensible. 


Can travelling by yourself actually be enjoyable?  Would someone actually choose to do that?


Absolutely!  It's all about attitude.



Being solo doesn't mean you can't go anywhere

 

I love travelling solo.  For starters there's the freedom and independence (some of the reasons we go travelling in the first place?) and of course the added bonus that when I'm ready, everyone's ready.


There are other benefits too.  My solo traveller status has had me upgraded to the last remaining first class plane seat, scored me the best seats in restaurants, and allowed me to jump ahead of the lift queue when skiing (using the dedicated single lane).


Not to say that I haven't found travelling with friends, family and small groups great too.   I've had wonderful European driving holidays with friends, ski trips with family, and made new friends on small group tours across Asia.


But I'm not as repulsed by the concept of solo travel as others seem to be.   And quite frankly I'm mystified why more people don't do it! 


I've had friends who've complained to me that they would love to go travelling, but don't have anyone to go with.  A lack of money or time are valid reasons for not travelling.   A lack of travelling companions?  Nope.  Sorry, you'll have to think of a better excuse than that.   If you think travelling solo is sad, I think it's sadder to want to go travelling, but never actually doing it because you're single.  Why does your happiness hinge so much on the whims of others?


Statistics say there is a growing number of single-person households; are they all planning on just sitting at home during their holidays?


Interestingly I think a growing number of hotels and other tourism operators are recognising this single market.  In Japan, for instance, I've found I've been paying for a hotel room on a per person, rather than per room, basis.


No doubt it is a matter of preference and taste, but perhaps don't discount solo travel until you've tried it.  


When in China on a small group tour of 12 people a few years ago, we came across a massive busload of Chinese tourists visiting Beijing.   They felt sorry for us travelling in such a small group, much preferring the company of at least 50 others when touring their own country.  However, for me, travelling with more than a dozen people would be a nightmare.  Can you imagine how long it would take them to get ready in the morning, taking into account the usual stragglers?   And just how authentic and impromptu would any local interaction be?  Would there ever be any opportunity to pop into a local cafe or restaurant to sit and relax, or just go for a wander by yourself to explore the neighbourhood?


Travelling solo often means you interact with others, whether they be locals or other travellers, much more than you would if you were travelling in a group.   And with email, Skype and Facebook, I seem to "talk" more with friends and family when I'm travelling than when I'm living in the same city as them - probably because I've actually got something to talk about.

 

"But what do you do about dinner?"


Hard to believe, but I actually eat dinner when I travel solo, just like I do at home.   A fear of eating dinner by themselves seems to be one of the core reasons why people don't travel solo.   They feel they can handle lunch, but dinner is a different story.   


I can understand this to some extent. I used to feel a little weird asking for a table for one.  But then I got over myself.  Who cares what a room of strangers think?   Is me walking into this restaurant solo rocking their world?   


If anything, I've felt solo diners are given special treatment by waiters (probably out of pity) and often score the table with the nicest view.  Just like at home, while waiting for my meal I read a magazine, catch up on some emails or plan the next day's adventures.


Dining by myself also means I've noticed a few things.   Like the couples who can't think of a single word to say to each other across the table and just stare in opposite directions.  And the parents of the screaming children who look like they wish they could sit by themselves for just one uninterrupted meal.  


At the end of the day, just as travelling with others has perks, so too does travelling solo.


So don't pity us solo travellers; we're probably having a much better time than you.

 

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http://somekindofblissblog.blogspot.com/

 

 

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