After spending August in Canada, I boarded my flight for Copenhagen. Departing on time at 7:20 PM, the pilot announced we would be landing in Copenhagen a full hour early, at 7:30AM Danish time. The flight crew were thrilled with the early arrival, but it meant the overnight flight was only 5 hours, 2 of which were taken up with a very slow dinner service followed less than 2 hours later by a breakfast. There had been little time for sleep and I hadn’t had any.
The Hop On-Hop Off Bus:
“You are very early,” the receptionist at my hotel said when I tried to check in. “Why don’t you store your luggage and go do some sightseeing?” Since I had no other plans and he wouldn’t let me check in (it was only 9:00AM), it seemed like a good idea. I walked back to the Central Station, bought a ticket for the Hop On-Hop Off Bus and hopped on.
The bus drove through central Copenhagen, the commentary pointing out famous sights: the Parliament, Amailienborg Castle where the royal family lives, the newly constructed Opera House, the Central Bank building, the National Museum and Tivoli Gardens, the second oldest amusement park in the world. The oldest, Bakken, dating from 1573, is just north of Copenhagen but a lot smaller and not on the Hop On-Hop Off bus’ route. As amusement parks are not really my thing, I passed on both of them.
The highlight was a stop at Copenhagen’s iconic statue, the Little Mermaid. Inspired by Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tale, him being one of two of Copenhagen’s most famous citizens (the other being the existential philosopher Kierkegaard), the statue was commissioned in 1913 by Carl Jacobsen, the son of the founder of Carlsberg, the beer company. The Jacobsen family is one of Denmark’s richest and its name was mentioned numerous times as having commissioned art, buildings and roofs. Back to the Little Mermaid, she has been decapitated twice, stolen once and rumours abound that the current edition is not the original. Nonetheless, she is Copenhagen’s most visited tourist sight and the second most overhyped sight in Europe, behind Brussels’ Manneken Pis. I dutifully walked up to her, took a photo, then took many more photos of tourists taking photos.
A few hours of sightseeing and some catnaps on the bus later, I walked back to my hotel, checked in and crashed.
The Walking Tour:
The next day, I, along with a much too large group of about 40 others, joined Penny, a transplanted American, for a walking tour. She provided a brief history of Denmark: hunter-gatherers, farmers, Vikings who eventually adopted Christianity, Middle Ages replete with fiefdoms, the plague, continuous battles against Sweden over domination of the Baltic Sea (with the goal of taxing the merchant ships sailing through) and union with Norway for 300 years beginning 1523. It has long had a monarchy, Lutheranism became the state religion, a constitution was adopted in 1849 at the urging of the then reigning king and absolute monarch, Frederick VII. It separated from Norway in 1814, gave up 4 of its colonies (in India, the current U.S. Virgin Islands, Ghana and Iceland) and was occupied by the Nazis during WW2 after surrendering following a 2 hour battle. Interestingly, it had sold the US Virgin Islands (then named St. Thomas) to the US in 1917 for $25 million, so Trump’s current offer to purchase Greenland from Denmark is not without precedent.
Slightly longer was the explanation about the Danish revival architecture that dominates the city centre. Copenhagen was devastated by two fires in the 18th century, resulting in a dearth of old buildings and a plethora of regulations designed to avoid further fires. Streets were broadened to serve as fire barriers, bricks were used in all construction and no building could be higher than the church steeples, not as a sign of respect for religion but for the practical reason that the steeples doubled as watchtowers during fires and nothing could impede the sight-lines of the fire spotters. Thus, most buildings are 5 stories or less.
Nyhavn Canal and its adjoining waterside streets made up the former red light district, inhabited by sailors, prostitutes and Hans Christian Anderson whose name comes up a lot in Copenhagen. It was cleaned up and gentrified in the 1970’s and is now occupied by restaurants serving authentic Nordic food for the tourists, beer and wine bars and boats owned by the city. It is also colourful, quaint and pretty as a picture, of which I (and the thousands of other tourists) took many.
Copenhagen is not all pretty, older buildings. Modern architecture runs the gamut, but tends toward the boxy, sleek look in black and silver. It is not universally admired; one, the Blox, is routinely called the ugliest building in the world.
Copenhagen has embraced the multipurpose building. Its brand new opera house (replacing yet another candidate for world’s ugliest building) has a high diving platform on its roof (divers dive into the canal) and the recycling plant is in the process of adding a ski slope to its roof.
The Foodie Tour:
Noma has been voted the best restaurant in the world four times. It champions Nordic food and the eating local movement, has a tasting menu starting at $300 and a waiting list for reservations of about 35,000. Needless to say, I didn’t eat there. But I did take a food tour and sampled some Danish delights.
Danes love their herring and I couldn’t resist the herring smorgasbord, a buffet featuring more types of herring than I ever envisioned: fried herring in a vinegar/sugar dressing, creamed marinated herring, smoked herring with egg yolk, herring of my dreams, Crown herring, herring in curry dressing, capers herring, rolled herring in a white wine dressing, marinated herring with onions, marinated red Matjes herring, blueberry herrings with vinegar, marinated herring with apples and potatoes. I tried one of each; my favourite was the herring in curry dressing.
Another famous Danish favourite is the Smorrebrod, an open faced sandwich made with a thick slab of rye bread, buttered and topped with a variety of toppings, the more expensive the fancier. I dined on the rather tame smoked salmon, onions and egg salad Smorrebrod, but others come piled high with shrimp, chicken, vegetables, sauces, limited only by the chef’s imagination. Housewives used to bake the rye bread daily, then top it with the prior night’s leftovers to make lunch.
Our food tour included a beer stop – Copenhagen is proud of its beer tradition. Beer was the beverage of choice in the past few centuries since it was healthier than the filthy water that served as the city’s drinking water. Carlsberg beer is one of Denmark’s largest exports, along with LEGO and Maersk shipping containers. I skipped the beer to save the calories for desserts. Contrary to its name Danish pastries are not Danish, but Austrian. In Denmark, the thin, heavily buttered concoction filled with fruits and cheese is referred to as an Austrian pastry. Instead of trying an Austrian’s invention, I indulged in Koldskal, a summer treat made with sugared yogurt and Flodeboller, a chocolate covered marshmallow puff.
Danes love their hot dogs, loaded with everything and accompanied by chocolate milk. Our guide explained years ago, hot dog vendors were prohibited from selling fizzy drinks, so they came up with selling chocolate milk as an accompaniment. Including vegetables (onions, peppers and pickles) on the hot dog means one gets all four food groups in one meal, but I partook mostly because hot dogs, at $8.00 each, were one of the cheapest food options around. I couldn’t bear the thought of paying a minimum $14 for a glass of wine, so my days in Copenhagen were alcohol free.
In 1971, some mothers tore down a fence surrounding vacant army barracks on the island of Christianhovn to obtain access to a playground for their children. Soon, squatters moved in to the barracks, perhaps in protest to Copenhagen’s housing shortage, refused to pay rent, taxes or anything else, established a self-governing commune close to the center of Copenhagen and named it Christiania.
Today, 850 residents still live there (down from 1500 a few decades ago), but an agreement reached with the Copenhagen government in 1994 requires them to pay about $300 monthly for rent, taxes and utilities, still a considerable bargain in this city where average rents are about $3,000 per month. Christiania still tries to live by its own rules, but continual agreements with the Danish government have watered down its independence.
Its ideal was a place where each resident was responsible for the well-being of the community. It strove for economic self-sufficiency, banned cars and welcomed alternative lifestyles like LGBT, yogis and meditators. A lot of its restaurants are vegetarian and organic. Still car free, its paths are decorated with a mishmash of art, sculpture and plants.
Originally, Christiania did not prohibit drugs, so not surprisingly, drug addicts flocked to the area, creating a huge problem. But the residents managed to clear them out, and the only remnant is Pusher Street, where small booths or tables display marijuana in packages and fat cigarettes. The police turn a blind eye to this illegal activity and all are welcome so long as two rules are followed on the street: no photos and cash only.
In other areas of Christiania are weird houses, playgrounds, shops, a skateboard park, everything needed for a community. It is also Copenhagen’s 4th most visited tourist sight, somewhat diminishing its non-conformist attitude. In a nod to the residents, tour guides are not allowed to bring groups into Christiania (too many used to point out the junkies), but walk them to the entrance, explain the rules (have fun) and turn the tourists loose inside.
Copenhagen is a pleasant city and the mostly fluent English speaking Danes polite and helpful to tourists. I did a few other tours, took a boat cruise through the canals and the Baltic Sea and visited the National Museum. I had only one sunny day before, as if the weather gods realized it was September, the temperature cooled, the rain became a constant and the strong winds thwarted my desire to cycle on the bike paths that line most streets. Prices are obscene; taxis cost $40 for a 10 minute ride and sit down meals were a minimum of $30 without a beverage. But it was easy enough to find alternatives. The airport train to the city was only $7.00, grocery stores sold fresh fruit and vegetables and walking is free. There is a lot to see and do, but without the gigantic tourist crowds of cities like Paris and Amsterdam. An enjoyable city.