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Venice, Venice, Beautiful Venice Friday, 31 May 2013

Posted by Ian Marks in Europe 2013, Eurovision to 50, The Ians on Tour.
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It has been a while since I last blogged so this will be a wrap-up of our time in Venice.

Venice – We Arrive
Our flight from Berlin was uneventful and our arrival at Venice Marco Polo airport much like every other airport arrival. We decided that as this will probably be our only time in Venice so we should get a water taxi from the airport. What a thrill-ride that turned out to be! We were rocketing across the lagoon, swerving through the wakes of other boats standing at the back of our boat taking it all in. After clearing the lagoon we entered the canals of Venice and I could not stop beaming from ear to ear like a school child in a candy shop. The sites of Venice on arrival are just incredible: ancient buildings separated with strips of water bustling with traffic of all descriptions.

After leaping from our water taxi we followed the directions to our hotel which turned out to be very easy to find. When we turned the corner onto the square our hotel is located, it looked exactly like the picture on their website: small, cute and very Venetian. The Locanda Fiorita is a mid range hotel minutes walk from San Marco surrounded by cafes and restaurants. Check in was quick and pleasant and we were shown to our room. It is a good size room for the two of us with a tiny but functional bathroom.

We dropped our bags in the room and headed out into Venice, I had to see everything I could. Just around the corner from our hotel is the San Stefano square with a few cafes/restaurants. We wandered through it and down to the Grand Canal. After a brief visit I needed to sit for a moment and compose myself, I was still that kid in the candy shop and was going to explode with excitement. After a beer at a lovely cafe I thought I’d be Italian and ordered antipasto to go with the beer, some prosciutto with mozzarella buffalo. The prosciutto was so delicate and delicious and the mozzarella just melted in my mouth – I truly was in heaven at this time. Some dinner later in the evening just added to the swirl of senses in my head: scampi pasta black and done, as the waiter said, Italian style: no cheese.

Venice – We Explore
There is a tourist promotion phrase “Come to Venice and get lost” and this is exactly what we did on Days 2, 3 and 4. We spent so much time wandering here and there through the streets. I say streets but that is probably not correct, they are really alleys that lead from one square to another. Some are wide and others are so narrow that one person can barely fit through. There are some truly amazing sites as you turn a corner and are confronted with ancient architecture that is still part of peoples life’s. The best way to tell the tourist from the local in Venice, besides the camera, is the tourists are the ones looking around wildly and the locals are just getting on with business.

We were wandering along one day and found San Barnaba, a square with a couple of cafes, a church and running along one edge a canal, this is fairly typical of the squares in Venice. The church was being used for an exhibit of reproductions of Leonardo da Vinci inventions. The exhibit was wonderful, most of the items were hands on which added to the fact that this man had come up with these ideas so many years ago. The thing that really blew my away was the church, in disrepair and now being used for a new purpose as so many churches in Venice are. The frescos over the altar were beautiful but the building had been repaired with concrete that had covered many parts of the fresco. I could have wept for the artist as this work was truly beautiful.

After the Leonardo exhibit we needed to sit for a while so sat at some tables in the square for a cafe. It was only when we sat down that we realised we had come to the cafe that our friends Liz and Noel had told us to come to and have a Aperol Spritz, which we dutifully did as instructed. To prove the point we sent Liz and Noel a photo of us at the bar.

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On Day 3, we wandered so far that we ended up at the other side of the island. We had a view across the lagoon to the airport and the cemetery, which is its own island. It was then that we decided to get the Vaporetto (water bus) back to our side of the island. We took the route that afforded great views around the island and it took almost a hour to reach our stop. This ride was so much fun and the way these guys drive the boats can be a little frightening at times as well.

Yesterday afternoon we returned to the cafe at San Barnabos, not intentionally we just were wandering and ended up there. We were sitting having a quiet beer when we spotted the ever lovely Dan Hall and Katie about to sit down in the same cafe. I worked with Dan a number of years ago at Sydney Festival and this just went to show what a small world it can be.

Last night we found this small restaurant in one of the smaller alleys that link San Stephano with San Marco. We had a lovely evening having a truly Italian meal, with great service and ambience (once the trailer trash family had left).

Today it is raining so we’re catching up with the world this morning before heading out this afternoon for a last day in Venice. The good thing about the rain in it keeps the day trippers down.

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Lost in Venice Friday, 31 May 2013

Posted by Ian Cole in Europe 2013, Eurovision to 50, Ian C, The Ians on Tour.
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Friends who have visited Venice told us to just walk and get lost. It’s not hard to do, and it’s the best advice. We have just walked and walked and seen so much of the city, just by heading off in any general direction. We have seen so much that we would never have seen if we’d stuck to the main sights and sites.

We’ve found what I call the Western Suburbs of Venice (a newer, mostly residential area in the west), we found ourselves on the northern side of the island, though we hadn’t indended to walk that far. That led to us catching a Vaporetto (water bus) back around and closer to our hotel. It was a great way to see Venice from the water, much cheaper and less touristy than a guided tour.

We’ve found many lovely squares and cafes to stop for a drink and watch the world go by. We’ve crossed over countless canals, and yes there are gondolas, gondolas, more fucking gondolas!

We seen the major tourists sites, Piazza San Marco (St Mark’s Square) and Pont Rialto (Rialto Bridge) of course. The way is mostly signposted, and both are not terribly far from our hotel. They’re so crowded with so many tourists, who are probably missing the wonderful sights they could see by just walking 100 meters in any direction.

The city itself is a bizarre experience for anyone used to any other city. There are no cars of course, but there are also few straight lines. Most buildings are not square, they’ve been built to fit the space they’re in. “Major” thoroughfares can be a laneway less then two metres wide.

I wasn’t sure what to expect in Venice. It’s a place I’d wanted to see, but didn’t know if there would be anything to do after seeing the major sites. It’s been fascinating and beautiful, and quite relaxing, despite the hours and hours of walking.

Check out the other Ian’s post for more about our Venetian adventures.

Today is our last day here. Just like our last couple of days in Berlin, it’s cold and it’s raining. Tomorrow we pick up our cruise on Splendour of the Seas, off to see the Adriatic Sea, Dubrovnik, and several stops in Greece.

Meeting ABBA Sunday, 26 May 2013

Posted by Ian Cole in Europe 2013, Eurovision to 50, Ian C, The Ians on Tour.
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Well, not really. Today we visited Madame Tussauds Berlin, where the new ABBA figures are currently on display (and apparently they will be in Sydney in December).

We visited the original Madame Tussauds in London several years ago, but this is our first experience with one of the regional locations. It’s very different, very small, with some local history (surprisingly, Adolf Hitler, though there was a sign asking visitors not to take photos. Ignored, of course). The rest was sports, movie, television and music celebrities. Still, they’re very well done.

After that we wandered up Unter den Linden, the wide avenue on the eastern side of Brandenburg Gate, until we came across the DDR Museum. First we stopped for lunch in the attached restaurant Domklause, whose menu is based on typical DDR cuisine.

The museum displays what life was like in the DDR. It was fascinating yet disturbing that people lived like that for so many years. Though there did seem to be some positives aspects of the lifestyle, it was incredibly restrictive.

We did get up close and personal with the Trabant, the infamous East German car. No, I’m not really driving in the photo, it’s a fixed museum exhibit. They really were made of plastic! We’ve heard that there are 50,000 or so cars still on German roads today. We have actually seen a few out and about, excluding the convoys of organised tours.

We’re loving Ampelmann, the Walk and Don’t Walk signs once restricted to the east, that are now spreading across Berlin. There is merchandise galore and even dedicated shops selling nothing but Ampelmann-branded items. It’s always a thrill to spot the signs on the street.

It’s our last night in Berlin. We’ve had a few beers in the hotel bar, and now it’s time to pack for tomorrow’s flight to our next stop, Venice. Just when I’ve gotten used to German!

UPDATE: a new photo gallery of the ABBA figures at Madame Tussauds.

Then we take Berlin Saturday, 25 May 2013

Posted by Ian Cole in Europe 2013, Eurovision to 50, Ian C, The Ians on Tour.
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So. it’s about time for an update of what we’ve been doing in Berlin.

Thursday we travelled deep into the former East Berlin, to Alexanderplatz to visit the Berliner Ferneshturm (TV Tower), built by the DDR (Deutsche Demokratische Republik, the German Democratic Republic, aka East Germany) in the 1960s. The tower was built not only as a television transmitter, but also as a symbol of the DDR’s strength, as it can be quite clearly seen from many parts of the former West Berlin.

It’s a stunning piece of architecture, with magnificent views over Berlin. We spent quite a long time circling the observation deck, reading the captions about the directions we were looking at. It was particularly interesting looking further east, towards the remaining DDR-era apartment blocks that stretch on for miles.

Returning to ground level we headed to the East Side Gallery, a 1.3 kilometre-long section of the Berlin Wall that remains alongside the River Spree and has been turned into a memorial for freedom, and a gallery of murals painted by artists from around the world in 1990, after the fall of the Wall. It was disappointing to see so much graffiti on the murals, despite the many signs warning of prosecution for defacing the artworks.

We stopped in at a riverside cafe for a couple of beers, as you do. A lovely spot to spend the late afternoon, watching the world go by. Later, we returned to the hotel, then out to dinner at Ständige Vertretung, a restaurant serving cuisine and beer from the Köln (Cologne) region. The menu told us about Kölsch, the beer served in the region that has particular ways of being served.

Friday we visited the Reichstag, the German parliament building which has had a long, turbulent and violent history since it was first opening in 1894.

After the building was destroyed by a fire in 1933, then the damage inflicted at the end of World War II, the facade was restored and interior was partially rebuilt in the 1960s. Restoration was completed after German reunification in the 1990s, with a new dome that visitors can climb a ramp right to the top, looking out across Berlin and inwards to the German Parliament.

Leaving the Reichstage we headed back to our hotel, but rather than catch the S-Bahn or U-Bahn we took a walk through Tiergarten, the huge park in the centre of the city. Surprisingly to both of us it’s pretty much an urban forest. with occasional avenues or open spaces. We had both expected something like London’s Hyde Park or New York’s Central Park. It is truly stunning, and amazing to realise that the park that exists today was established in the years after World War II.

Wanting to go somewhere local for dinner, we got a timely message from our friend Raffe in Sweden, recommending Zillemarkt, a restaurant not far away, near Savignyplatz. He was right, the food was delicious and the restaurant had a great atmosphere.

Sadly today after some mostly fine weather it’s turned cold and wet. Undeterred we visited Zoologischer Garten Berlin (Berlin Zoological Garden), aka Zoo Berlin. One of the world’s oldest zoos, it was quite beautiful, set as it is at the edge of Tiergarten. Because of the wet weather many of the animals had taken shelter. Still, we saw lions and tigers and bears, oh my.

We had planned on finding somewhere for a drink and lunch. But the weather turned colder and wetter, so we settled in to the bar at the hotel for a few (!) beers instead.

One thing we’ve noticed is that Berlin essentially looks like a new city. Despite its long history, with a few exceptions that history is not visible in the buildings. Obviously much was lost during the war, but there has been so much rebuilding in the last 20 years or so, the difference between the western and eastern halves of the city has disappeared. There are still dozens of construction sites today, and it’s obvious it will continue for many years.

Can I pick a hotel Saturday, 25 May 2013

Posted by Ian Marks in Europe 2013, Eurovision to 50, The Ians on Tour.
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Several months ago I was searching for a hotel in Berlin. I had some basic requirements that we apply to every hotel we stay in:
– can plug in a hair dryer
– can flush the toilet
– and don’t need to get dressed in the middle of the night to have a pee

With these points in mind I went in search if a hotel. I consulted Tripadvisor, numerous hotel booking sights and finally google maps. I knew from research that the best area to stay in was near to Savignyplatz. So I did a google search for the area and begun eliminating them one by one. So e were OK but lacked facilities, others were just no. I narrowed it down to the Savoy Hotel, it is close to Bahnhof Berlin Zoologischer Garten, a station with many train lines intersecting it and with the facilities we required. So then it became what type of room we would like to book. I had found in the online reviews that people had talked about the Greta Garbo suite, a 1920s style suite with black and mirrored walls. So I decided to book a suite at the Savoy thinking it would be of a good standard.

On check-in, we were allocated the Henry Miller suite on Level 5. So while I was expecting a nice suite I was not expecting the same style of room as the Greta Garbo suite. The suite is large and of a real 1920s style, which fits with the style of the rest of the hotel.

To give you an idea of the room, some images are below

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Checkpoint Charlie Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Posted by Ian Cole in Europe 2013, Ian C, The Ians on Tour.
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 Now that we’re in Berlin, it’s time to visit some of the rich history that the city has to offer. Today we took the U-Bahn to Potsdamer Platz for the start of our journey, aiming for Checkpoint Charlie, one of the most notorius sites in Berlin in the past 50 years.

During the division of Berlin, Potsdamer Platz had been one of the most infamous sites. A former popular area with hotels, bars, restaurants and nightclubs before the war, it became a wasteland with the Berliner Mauer (the Berlin Wall) running directly through the middle of the area. Today, it has become a centre of big business.

Walking south then east along the line of the wall we came to the site of the Gestapo headquarters, now a permanent undeveloped site, with a memorial to the terror, established for the recent 80th anniversary of that terrible time. The memorial was incredibly moving yet disturbing at the same time. It’s also one of the few sites in all of Berlin where the Wall remains in situ, though it’s severely damaged from the Mauerspechte (wall woodpeckers), who chipped at the Wall for souvenir pieces when the Wall fell in 1989.

Next it was a short walk to Checkpoint Charlie, the most famous (infamous) of crossing points between West and East Berlin during the years of the division. We particularly wanted to visit the Haus am Checkpoint Charlie, a museum that was first established back in 1962, just a year after the first version of the Wall was built.

The museum was fascinating, covering history from World War II, the partition of Berlin between the four victorious powers, and the various conflicts around the world that led to the creation of the Wall. From there, it documented how the Wall affected Berlin, and the many escape attempts across the border, until the barricade finally fell, almost by accident, in 1989.

In some ways the museum was disappointing, being mostly set in small rooms in an old apartment building. It was very wordy (lots and lots and lots to read), and also had some missed opportunities, the most notable being the blocking of the window that spies and journalists would use to watch Checkpoint Charlie for action. Ironically the window is blocked by photos of people looking out that very window.

Today, the area around Checkpoint Charlie has become a tourist haven, or as I called it “Checkpoint Charlie World”, with various paid entry exhibits and many tourist vendors.  Now you can have your passport stamped and your photo taken with border guards, who probably weren’t even born when the Wall fell. Ironic, really. Though I’m not sure how a passport stamped with DDR entry permits might be accepted in some ports. Best to get the stamps on a facsimile visa page, also available. Across Berlin the site of the Wall is marked with paving stones in the streets or footpaths, or across squares and parks, as a memorial.

Tonight we headed out for dinner at Der Berliner Republik, as recommended in the Berlin Card Welcome book, for some typical German/Berlin cuisine. The restaurant is located in the heart of the former East Berlin, on the edge of the River Spree, affording lovely views of the river. Very, very tasty, and very filling. Had it not been raining, it would have been a lovely spot to spend an evening with a few drinks.

Our first day in Berlin Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Posted by Ian Cole in Europe 2013, Eurovision to 50, Ian C, The Ians on Tour.
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Yesterday we boarded an early train from Copenhagen, bound for Berlin. We arrived mid-afternoon, and after checking in to the hotel and checking out our over-the-top suite, we popped downstairs to the bar for a few drinks, then headed out to nearby Savingnyplatz for dinner (as recommended by Stefan and Raffe). We found a nice local cafe that served very German cuisine, which was delicious.

As this is our first visit to Berlin, today we did the obligatory bus tour of the city, to familiarise ourselves with the city, to find the major sites and to figure out the places we want to visit. As we soon found, the central area of Berlin isn’t all that big, and we found most of the sites that we had already planned to visit.

After doing the full circle on the bus, we took a walk into Tiergarten, the huge park in the centre of Berlin, and visited Siegessäule, aka the Berlin Victory Column, in the centre of Groβe Stern in the heart of Tiergarten.

We managed to schlep our way up the 285 steps (really? That’s all?) to the top, which was worth the effort as it afforded us magnificent views across Tiergarten and beyond, including the stunning view towards Brandenburger Tor (Brandenburg Gate).

Having managed to make our way to the top and back down, we stopped in at Viktoria Café, just opposite the monument, to rest our weary aging legs and refresh ourselves with a couple of beers and a pretzel. We weren’t the only ones with that idea, we saw several other people we’d encountered at the monument doing exactly the same thing.

Suitably rested, we headed off for a walk through Tiergarten towards Brandenburg Gate. We were very surprised to find that Tiergarten is essentially an urban forest – we’d both been expecting something like London’s Hyde Park or New York’s Central Park.

Eventually we made it to Brandenburg Gate. Stunning and imposing and bearing the scars of its history. An exciting moment for me was walking across the site of the Berliner Mauer (Berlin Wall), marked with paving stones in the middle of the road and also along much of its former length. Of course, we walked through the centre span, once reserved for the Kaiser.

Ironically, the former East Berlin side of the Gate has become a tourist trap, actors in American, West German and East German military uniforms, bearing flags and posing for photographs.

After all that, we returned to the hotel for a break. Then headed out to dinner at the Hard Rock Cafe. For once, we were sat in a section with some really cool stuff – one of Pete Townsend’s guitars, a costume worn by Keith Moon, a jacket belonging to Nina Hagen, and John Lennon’s jacket worn at The Beatles famous Shea Stadium concert in 1965. Also nearby was one of Elvis’s 70s-era belts, and a fabulous photo of Ringo and Elton, circa 1974, both looking a little worse for wear, if you know what I mean.

We’ve also found a lovely spot to stop for a drink of a sunny afternoon or a mild evening after dinner – the Quasimodo Cafe at the Delphi Filmpalast am Zoo. Expect to find us here another day.

A day with Raffe and Stefan Monday, 20 May 2013

Posted by Ian Cole in Europe 2013, Eurovision to 50, Ian C, The Ians on Tour.
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After Saturday night’s excitement with the Eurovision Song Contest Grand Final, Sunday afternoon we headed back to Malmö to meet up with friends Raffe and Stefan. Some of you will know them as the guys who run the website Raffem.com.

After meeting up at Malmö Central Station, we wandered around the old, central part of Malmö. As we walked Stefan and Raffe told us some of the history of the area, how it still retains some Danish flavour as the south of Sweden had once been a part of Denmark. There are some beautiful spots, in some parts reminiscent of both Copenhagen and Stockholm.

After we stopped for a beer, we headed towards Västra Hammen, the area where they live. It’s a newer area in Malmö, where former dockyards and industrial sites are being redeveloped as commercial and residential. There is some quite striking architecture in the area, most notably the Turning Torso tower, the new landmark of Malmö.

Eventually we ended up at their apartment, to settle in for an afternoon of drinks, music and chatter. It was a lovely way to spend our last day in the Copenhagen/Malmö area, before moving on to the next leg of our trip. After an enjoyable afternoon and a delicious dinner, all too soon we had to return to Copenhagen and our hotel, to pack ready for our early morning train for Berlin.

Wonderful Copenhagen Monday, 20 May 2013

Posted by Ian Marks in Europe 2013, Eurovision to 50, The Ians on Tour.
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So all good things must come to an end and so must our time in Copenhagen. But I get ahead of myself and out travels.

When last I wrote we were off to Eurovision Semi Final 2 on Thursday 16 May. Ian C has writing about that so I’ll start with the Friday. After a late and slightly sluggish start to the day, we decided to head to the Boathouse, a cafe and boat hire place near Christianshavn. It’s a lovely little cafe on a barge on a canal. We sat on the barge for a while having a few drinks watching the tour boats go past. It’s one of those places that is relaxing and entertaining at the same time. So we just sat and drank our beers for what turned out to be way too long. When we finally decided to go and wander on a bit more that day had turned decidedly hot, so much so that it was a little uncomfortable. While wandering around, we came across some sand sculptures on the bank of a canal. It felt a bit odd for there to be sand castles on the bank of a canal in Copenhagen. We eventually reached Nyhavn where we stopped for some lunch before heading back to our hotel to prepare for the Jury final of Eurovision.

Saturday we headed to Malmo to have a look at the things they were doing for Eurovision. We went to Central Station to get the train across to Malmo. This is a very efficient service that runs every 20 mins across the Øresund Bridge between Malmo and Copenhagen. This bridge has provided the most consternation I have ever experienced in a holiday: breakfast in one country, a concert in another and then back to the first country where my hotel is. I’m sure I’ve spoken about this in a previous post, but it still does my head in.

So in Malmo we went to the “Euro Village” which turned out to be a stage and stalls in the centre of Malmo with a screen to broadcast the show. The area was was small and didn’t interest us so we decided to check out Folkets Park to see what they offered. Here was a live site with a screen and a cafe but the two weren’t linked and did not offer what we wanted for the finale of Eurovision 2013. S for us it was back to Malmo station, back across the bridge a hang out in the Town Hall Square and watch the show there. Ian C has already written about it and I’ll just say what a great night with all the Copenhagen folk.

Sunday was a great day hanging out with acquaintances of Ian Cs who I would now consider friends. The wine ended up flowing a bit too freely and we ended up being a little bit later than I would have liked – there was packing to do and an early start on Monday morning,

We arrived at the station with plenty of time to spare before we boarded the ICE38 service to Berlin. I had bee looking. Forward to riding this train for some time. These trains are very nice and can run at high speed on standard train tracks, my only criticism is that there was no real luggage storage, something that could be resolved fairly easily. The really cool part was that the frosted screen behind the driver was made transparent so you could see both the driver and the track ahead. For a train lover like me if was a lot of fun. After a 7 hour (approx) train trip we arrived at Berlin Hauptbanhoff, a massive station in the heart of Berlin. While being such a huge station it turned out to be one of the easiest to navigate.

In m next post I’ll let you know about our OUTRAGEOUS hotel room in Berlin.

Eurovision Song Contest Grand Final Sunday, 19 May 2013

Posted by Ian Cole in Europe 2013, Eurovision to 50, Ian C, The Ians on Tour.
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SPOILER ALERT for any Australian readers or anyone who didn’t watch the Eurovision Song Contest Grand Final live, and wants to watch it later without knowing the result, do not continue. This post will contain spoilers galore.

After the two semi finals on Tuesday and Thursday, and the Jury Final last night, tonight was the Grand Final. As we didn’t have tickets, we had to find somewhere to watch it on TV. Our choices were to stay in the hotel (dull, we’ve come all this way for it, we want to be in a crowd), one of the Eurovision sites in Malmö, or Rådhuspladsen in Copenhagen. The last had the advantage of being literally at the door to our hotel.

So we chose Rådhuspladsen. In the square we met up with friends Jason, Barry, Erik and Phillipe (that we’d met on Friday night) and Warren from Australia, who I hadn’t seen for probably 20 years. It was great to be able to share the night with friends.

We took a spot in about the middle of the square. As the show came closer the square started to fill, though it wasn’t completely crowded as I’d expected. Lots of locals of course, and lots of others visiting from around Europe and elsewhere who, like us, obviously couldn’t get tickets. Including the troup of German boys we’d seen every night we’d been at the arena – couldn’t miss them, they all had mohawks coloured as the German flag.

Certain numbers got a reaction from the crowd, with people rushing towards the empty space in front of the screen to dance. Of course, when the Danish entry came on, everyone in the square stood.

After the performances, and the interval act (which was fabulous!), it was time for the voting. Early leader was Greece, then the voting switched around, with different countries getting the douze points and leading briefly.

Denmark quickly gained the lead, but with many high scores going to Azerbaijan and Ukraine. But about half way through it became obvious that Denmark was likely to win, and the atmosphere became tense, especially when Azerbaijan got more votes.

But with three countries still to vote, it was obvious that Denmark had won, and the crowed erupted! It as exciting and amazing to be in the middle of such rejoicing. Though the Danish entry was far from being a favourite in the competition, tonight we were honorary Danes.