Trip Start Jul 01, 2007
29Trip End Nov 25, 2007
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I arrive in Copenhagen late on the 31st July. I go to the toilet at the airport, and a friendly young man at the adjoining pissoir starts speaking to me in Danish, and when I look rather blank he realises I am a tourist and speaks in English. He is Danish but is working in Malta and is home for holidays and wishes me a good time as we part.
I am staying at a bed and breakfast run by a mother and daughter, and it is sited in a large apartment building across from a park. My first morning I walk into the centre of the city about 2kms away, past sex shops with all sorts of sex aids displayed in the window, men at bars drinking beer, and what look like people who have been using drugs. This is not what I expected and later read in my guide book that I have walked through Vesterbro, which in the past had an unsavoury reputation, but is now becoming trendified with lots of cafes and restaurants.
The first impression that strikes you is the number of people riding bicycles - every street has wide bike lanes and these are bustling with cyclists of all types and ages - businessmen in suits, old ladies and men, parents with families (they have a wheeled contraption at the front which they put their children into - also used for carrying shopping). By comparison there are few cars on the road so the city feels quiet and well-ordered.
Architecturally the city is relatively homogeneous - most of the palaces, public buildings, apartments, etc were built from the late 1700s as a big fire burnt most of the city a little time before. Everywhere there are green spires, some with fantastical shapes - one looks a bit like the tower of Babel and there is another with intertwined sections.
My guide book says that the Danish are the happiest people in Europe according to a recent survey and they certainly seem well-fed and content. Just about everybody speaks English which makes it very easy to get around, which is just as well as at first glance the language seems impenetrable - there is supposed to be some similarity to English, but I can't see it initially (later I start working it out in written words but it doesn't help at all verbally).
There are lots of Turkish, Thai and African people around and they seem to mix in well with the locals - I saw many mixed couples and their children cycling and walking around.
I am keen to try the food and over the time I am here I try as many different things as I can. My first meal is at a little shop with a range of open sandwiches in the window and I eat one with fish balls and a yellow creamy sauce and one with pork crackling and apple sauce.
Later I go to a traditional restaurant for lunch - Hansens Gamle Familiehave. They have some interesting items on the menu - night snack of liverpaste and pickled pork with onions, gorgonzola with onions, shrimps shelled by hand every morning before dawn (sounds like a duel). I order a half pint of beer (I'm a bit of a chicken, everybody else has pints) and order what is called the Gent's Lunch.
The first course is marinated pickled herrings, served with a raw egg yolk, raw onions, capers, and a slice of heavy dark rye bread. The waitress sees me trying to work out how to eat this and takes pity on me and comes over to show me how - you lay the herring fillet over the bread, top with onions and capers, then pour the egg yolk over - logical really (but I never said I was smart - I was trying to dip pieces of herring into the raw egg in it's shell). The waitress then brings fried pork cubes and potatoes with canned beetroot, and French mustard on the side, and hovers around to see that I am eating it properly. Finally she brings a very strongly flavoured smoked cheese with sliced radish, white onion, a thin brown slice of jelly, and a small bottle of golden liquid. I ask her what it is and all I can understand is something that sounds like 'Rome' - it tastes like a thin sweet wine and she says you pour it over the cheese.
I'm feeling very full and slightly queasy after this meal (must be my delicate Mediterranean stomach) so I finish off with an Akvavit to try and help it go down. The meal stays heavy in my stomach the rest of the day and into the night and I desperately walk around all day trying to work it off.
Unbeknown to me I have arrived in Copenhagen the day before the 2nd Nordic Tango Festival starts so I see a flyer and go along. The highlight of the festival for me is the range of live music - every night there is a live band, and some nights there are two, and they are all fabulous - they range from the Paolo Russo Duo on piano and bandoneon, who play jazz-influenced and highly improvised music, to Orquesta Tipica Tangarte, an eight piece band from Malmo, across the straight in Sweden. After their set I speak to Paolo and Francesco Cali, who comes from Catania in Sicily - they moved to Copenhagen some years ago, married local girls and have settled here. They are delighted to speak to me in Italian and are really happy their first gig to a tango audience went so well - they normally play in jazz bars. One of the nights is particularly good - the venue is the Den Ny Theatre, a beautiful old theatre on the edge of town - we are in a dark wood-panelled room, and high up on the walls there is a wooden gallery filled with life size figures wearing costumes from various theatre productions. You have this eerie feeling of being watched all the time.
I didn't do justice to Copenhagen as you would need to be there a lot longer to see all the things of interest and unfortunately I didn't have a camera. I did get to the National Museum, where I saw a fantastic exhibition of Danish history until the Protestant Reformation. Particularly interesting were the ancient Runic stones - huge stones with runic writing, which goes in a clockwise direction from the outside of the stone inwards.
One day I visited the Viking Museum at Roskilde, 30kms from Copenhagen. The stars of the exhibition are a number of Viking ships dug up from the Roskilde fiord (which is fairly shallow). These ships are in excellent condition considering their age and you are filled with admiration at the skills and the hardiness of these people. It doesn't take a lot of imagination to picture these ships sailing through the fiord. The Museum also has traditional boats from the last few centuries and you get a real feel for the dependence of the people in this area on the sea.
Another day I caught the train to Helsingor to see the Kronborg Slot, which is Shakespeare's Elsinore Castle in Hamlet. This is set in a commanding position on the sound between Denmark and Sweden and is one of the largest castles in Scandinavia. The town itself is very lovely and has many traditional thatched roof houses, with timber upper storeys.
Swedish people come over by the boatload to stock up on cheap grog and the later opening hours (at least by their their standards). I travelled on by train to Gilleleje, a major fishing port. I had a swim in the late afternoon at one of the beaches, which was very refreshing, then lay down and sunbaked in the weak sun :)
Although Copenhagen is generally very clean, well-ordered and neat, there is an area called the 'Freetown' of Christiania, which was started in the 1970's by a group of hippies and political activists. It is located in an old army area which is surrounded by greenery along a canal only a kilometre or 2 from the central city area, and feels utterly different to the rest of Copenhagen. People have squatted in the old army buildings and have also built shacks to live in, generally painted in bright colours and patterns. There are a number of what you would call rustic pubs and there are lots of people wandering around the paths with bottles of beer in one hand and a joint in the other. I decided to join in and have a beer and watch the passing parade. I walk into one of these pubs and am hit by the strong smell of marijuana. Inside, the place is a zoo - every type of chracter you can think of is there - old men in singlets and brightly coloured board shorts rolling joints, goths, rastas, pretty young girls who don't seem old enough to have left home, etc.
Like many of these 'societies' there is a feeling of being rundown and pretty aimless. It's so hard to keep utopia going - it seems you need some organisation and discipline, which rather defeats the purpose.
One Sunday morning I have brunch at a funky cafe called Tjili-pop then walk through a cemetery called Assistens, where Soren Kierkegaard, Hans Christian Andersen, Niels Bohr, and many other notable Danes are buried. It's like a botanical park - there are shady trees, bushes, soft green grass. Locals are sunbaking in their bathers and having picnics among the graves. These often have grass, flowers or bushes growing on them and generally have headstones of natural rock.
A sunny Sunday afternoon in Copenhagen is people out in parks, thousands of cyclists, and pubs, restaurants and cafes full of people - much like life in Melbourne although more people are out, probably taking advantage of the short spell of favourable weather. In the 6 days I am in Copenhagen the weather alternates being cloudy, raining and short spells of sun. It's not exactly cold, although it doesn't really warm up.
To sum up my short visit - Copenhagen is a handsome, well-ordered, relatively quiet city. The use of bicycles is great and definitely looks like it has reduced the number of cars on the road. It is fairly expensive to live there - although probably only a little more than Melbourne, but cheaper than London. I unfortunately wasn't there long enough to experience more of the cultural activities, though I did get some of that through hearing the many bands at the tango festival. There are a lot of shops with 'design' items and the local clothing shops look pretty funky and have a lot of locally designed clothes.
I forgot to mention that every day I put in some serious research and ate Danish pastries. There are also some pretty good cafes serving good coffee.
Once again I am left with the hopeless feeling that I need another lifetime to properly explore all the places I would like to visit, as I feel as if I'm skating over the surface, but there's nothing to be done and I pack my bags for Stockholm.