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Tycho Brahe Museum, Sweden: Father’s day out

A forgotten observatory on a remote Swedish island brings father and son together


The Tycho Brahe Museum. Photo: Courtesy Tycho Brahe Museum.
The Tycho Brahe Museum. Photo: Courtesy Tycho Brahe Museum.

The rain had stopped falling, the grass was still moist. An inadequate sun had appeared from behind the clouds to warm the frigid Swedish air. We waited for the ferry in silence, not uncomfortably, but with a patient stillness that we both had polished over the years. When the ferry arrived, rattling the still waters of Öresund strait under its weight, I stepped aside to make way for my father to step in first. The ferry would take us to Ven, a small island in the middle of Öresund strait, a sea body between Denmark and Sweden that connects the waters of the North Sea on the west and the Baltic Sea on the east.

People go to Ven to bathe in the sun, to eat good food and drink rich wines, to ride around on tandem bikes, to do kitesurfing. Not us. We were driven by our own agendas. My father, a nuclear scientist who used to work for the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, wanted to visit the Tycho Brahe Museum, and I was committed to making it happen. Left to me, I would have designed another holiday, perhaps a road trip across the mountains for a few days. But when my father, who was visiting me in Sweden, casually enquired how far Ven was, I was intrigued. My father had never shown a particular interest in travelling—his only journey while visiting being a daily walk to the city library where he preferred to spend most of his hours.

“How do you know about Ven, papa?” I had asked him.

It seems Tycho Brahe, a 16th century Danish astronomer of some repute, had done considerable work in measuring the precise distance between stars at Ven before the invention of the telescope, and my father knew about it.

“His observatory is located there,” my father said with a dismayed look. Perhaps he expected his son to know about the fundamental sciences, their origins and associations. In my defence, when mulling over a trip to Sweden’s outlying islands, centuries-old observatories are not the first thought that spring to most minds.

A harbour in the Kyrkbacken village in Ven. Photo: iStockphoto
A harbour in the Kyrkbacken village in Ven. Photo: iStockphoto

The following Sunday, we both woke up early in my apartment in Malmo, Sweden’s third biggest city, where I have lived for the past eight years, and prepared for the trip. My wife fixed us sandwiches. The rain started just as we stepped out to take the train to the city of Landskrona, from where a ferry would take us to Ven.

In the ferry, I followed my father, just like I had done when I was little, to the uncovered upper deck. We walked to a side overlooking the water, dried a still-wet plastic bench with a wad of paper towels, and sat down. The deck filled up quickly; around us were tourists and day trippers carrying umbrellas, cameras and picnic baskets similar to ours. The rest carried larger bags—perhaps they had longer layovers, or had their homes on the island. A slight cheer settled in as the ferry began to cruise, and the deck reverberated in a consistent hum, punctuated with the sound of beer cans opening. I poured hot black tea for both of us; it has been a preference with both of us for many years now. From the other end, the sound of guitar filtered through, saving us the small talk.

Ven, called Hven by the Danes, materializes like a hump on the back of the otherwise placid sea. The ferry touched the island at Bäckviken, one of the four villages that make up Ven. To go to the observatory, we had the option of a bus, or of bicycles, but my father decided he wanted to walk.

A solitary trail curves around the island, running parallel to the coast, all the way up to the north, a distance of 4.5km. We decided to walk a part of it on foot before heading to the observatory. Though not many people live on the island, less than 500 in fact, it’s a top draw when it comes to owning a summer house.

The trail weaved through bushes before merging into a slightly wider track, along which the sea-facing summer houses queue up like clusters of sugar cubes stacked next to each other. The monotony is broken by the bold colours of the front doors, quirky postboxes, the blue of swimming pools held within the sprawl of some of the cottages, and bright blooms in the gardens that appear unannounced along the trail. Far off, yachts dot the sea, waiting idly for the wind to lift.

We found a bench under a tree on a grassy slope, looking across to the Danish coastline, and unwrapped our sandwiches. My father asked me what the time was. I sensed his growing impatience with my dilly-dallying, so I quietly folded away my plans of lingering on the waterfront and we continued on the trail to the Tycho Brahe observatory.

“There are actually two leftovers from Brahe’s time,” my father spoke abruptly as we walked on.

“Which ones?” I asked.

“Uraniborg, which was Brahe’s castle and an observatory, and Stjärneborg, his other observatory next to the castle.”

Brahe was gifted the island of Hven (then owned by Denmark, as was most of southern Sweden) by Danish king Frederik II in 1576 for constructing his observatory.

“The idea was to keep him home, safe from being poached by other European universities,” my father informed me on the way. “He was one of the brightest of that time, one to map the distance between the stars precisely. (Johannes) Kepler was his protégé.”

The Tycho Brahe Museum is the island’s main draw, surrounded by a beautiful garden called “Renaissance Garden”—one that can be enjoyed without buying an entrance ticket. Fruits and herbs cultivated here were used later in Brahe’s medicine studies. It’s an absorbing preface to the museum; it doubles up as a playground, and an open-air exhibition hall. The play area presents some of the popular games from Brahe’s time, most of which involved balancing on wooden bars or throwing rings.

“Brahe’s now ruined castle, Uraniborg, was in his time a meeting place for scientists and royals from all over Europe,” my father explained as we walked around studying the ruins. Stjärneborg was Brahe’s underground observatory next to Uraniborg. Today only the foundations of this observatory remain.

By now, a faint drizzle had begun again. Despite the cold showers, my father had a spring in his step as he hopped from one information plaque to another, carefully reading them end to end, making mental notes, and studying the leftovers from the observatories in detail.

“You know, this island is one of the most important places in the history of science,” he said, more to himself than to me.

I had carried a camera with me. For most part of the day, it had stayed inside the bag. My father has little appetite for getting photographed, but as I stood there watching him poring cheerfully over the remains from the Middle Ages, I decided to click him. Hearing the sound from the shutter clicks, he turned around and stood in rapt attention, posing for the camera.

“Can you take one more picture? In front of the museum,” he asked.

It was the first time ever that he had made such a request. I spread the tripod, and settled him on a perfect spot outside the museum. He sat erect, waiting to be clicked. As I zoomed in, I saw a childlike smile spread over his face.

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TRIP PLANNER

Go

Ferry company Ventrafiken operates a regular half-hour trip from Landskrona in Sweden to Ven. A return trip costs Sweden krona 100 (Rs800) for one adult.

Stay

It may be wise to stay in Landskrona, for finding accommodation in Ven is difficult during June-August. In any case, there are quite a few bed and breakfast options, as well as camping locations, on the island.

■Holken på Ven, Holkenven.se

■Basic accommodation, centrally situated and open all year.

■Spirit of Hven Backafallsbyn, Backafallsbyn.se/en/

■Expensive accommodation with one of Sweden’s best whisky bars.

■Ven’s camping and cottages, Venscamping.se

■Camping site looking across to the Danish coastline.

Eat

There are plenty of options in Ven, especially during the summer. These include:

■Café Tycho Brahe, Cafetychobrahe.se

■A great spot for lunch or coffee at the Tycho museum.

■Pumpans Café & Restaurang, Pumpans.com

■They offer vegetarian dishes made from organic ingredients.

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