Tuesday, August 6, 2013

5 perfect days in Denmark

Before this trip, I've had very limited experience with Scandinavia, whereas Flo has never been at all. My only previous visit consisted of an ill-fated attempt to meet someone in Sweden back at the turn of the century, for which I had taken an overnight  bus ride from St. Petersburg to Helsinki, followed by an overnight ferry from Helsinki to Stockholm. The person I intended to meet never showed up, but!.. I did get a quick taste of those two Scandinavian capitals, and developed an instant affinity for the region's polite and frosty charm. I had wanted to explore further ever since, which is one of the reasons we chose Denmark as this summer's destination.

In each destination I visit there is usually something specific that interests me, and drives my interaction with the place. Scandinavia fascinates me because it has some of the highest (sometimes the highest - depending on your source or year examined) quality of life and happiness ratings on the planet, while also being the most secular region, in terms of church-state separation and lack of religious affiliation. The correlation between a country's religiosity and its national prosperity and welfare is one the most fascinating subjects I can think of, one I could examine and debate for hours on end. Last year, Denmark was ranked the happiest nation on earth by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). This is notable because the country was hit hard by the recession, the effects of which can still be plainly and pervasively felt. Of course, Scandinavia also famously has some of the world's highest suicide rates, so I can see how the faithful would take issue with any hasty conclusions drawn from this correlation by the likes of me and fellow Hitch fans.

But I digress.

The other fascinating trait of this little kingdom is its ever-present bicycles and the amazing, expansive, thriving infrastructure that is put in place for the cycling population. I was sick with envy the entire time I was there, thinking that all these glorious bike lanes were built in a country of 5 million people, and reflecting on my own biking misadventured in Austin (read: America, population 314 million), where we're treated like red-headed step-children, dodging cars and pedestrians, begrudgingly tolerated, but snubbed by all.

the bike-friendly city just warmed my heart.
We spent 5 days in Denmark altogether, all of them in the Sealand (Zealand) region; the largest of the islands, and the one where Copenhagen is located. We spent a couple of days just perusing the capital, and took day trips out to the coast and countryside to explore the castles and historical villages.


Copenhagen is small for a European capital, bit this little gem of a city is a real treat. Its intimate and walkable scale makes it easy and fun to explore, and it has a surprising number of attractions, both touristy and hidden, that could easily take a few days to thoroughly absorb.

gymnastics performance on the square downtown
It never feels grand or imposing in scale, the way cities like Paris or Berlin would present themselves. Though there are plenty of stately red brick facades, wide avenues, and river quais dressed in stone, it still feels almost a little... quaint. Approachable and casual. It's easy to turn off a major street into a winding alley and stumble upon a little square peppered with cafe patrons nursing a coffee or beer, and feel like you're walking around the same city about a century ago.

Why does McDonalds have to photobomb every cityscape? I'm not lovin' it.

electric wires that are not ugly? Yes, please! This is how you light a city.
The Borsen, formerly a stock exchange building with its famous dragon spire. I believe it is currently for sale.

a mix of old and new buildings.
The open top canal tours are a great way to get your bearings and mark where all the must-see spots are.
There are a few "touristy" things you will inevitably have to do while in Copenhagen. One of them is visiting Nyhavn - the famous 17th century canal street and harbor with its candy colored row of buildings. This picturesque tourist trap with lure you into its overpriced cafes, to hang out and listen to some locals strumming a guitar with their legs swinging off the quais.

picture perfect Nyhavn.
Any local would probably groan if you told them you had dinner here, but I say you should go ahead and plop your butt here for a few. Yes, it is very pricey and clearly meant to amuse tourists more than to showcase Danish culture, but - especially if it is your first night - the experience will be memorable and feel authentic. This street is Denmark the way you imagine it, so don't snub it - give it a shot.

walking along Nyhavn you will see it through a forest of sail rigging.

if nature calls, and you happen to be French...

We lucked out being there in early July, not only to enjoy the relatively mild weather, but also to catch the longest days of the year. It didn't get fully dark until midnight. Dusk persisted like a photo frame, creating beautiful moments that lingered for hours, though they seemed like they should be fleeting. The pink twilight that usually crests and wanes in minutes just... stuck around. It truly felt like time slowed down, and we unwittingly matched its pace. It made walking around the quiet empty streets a little more enchanted. Such is the magic of White Nights - a unique trait of northern summers.

we happened to be in town during the Jazz Festival. Jazz melodies floating through the evening air certainly didn't hurt in setting a lovely summer mood.
Kayak Cafe
looking out at the opera house, around 10pm

It's worth noting that Denmark is quite expensive. This is not a bargain basement destination, so it's advisable to take advantage of savings opportunities whenever they present themselves. One prudent example of how to go about this is to get yourself hooked up with a cOPENhagen card - it gets you free admission to just about anything worth seeing in Sealand, as well as unlimited access to public transportation that will take you there. The train prices alone will pay for the card; then, it will be a race against time to see how many sights you can manage to visit before time runs out. We were able to do quite a lot, and definitely used our card to the fullest:

We took an open boat canal tour.

this building houses Noma - rated the world's #1 restaurant for 2 years in a row. No, we did not eat there.

The Opera House.

The (current) royal palace with what looks like the royal yacht parked out front? That 2nd part is just speculation.

modern apartment building

about to go under a bridge

going under bridges is fun! There's only a few inches of clearance on all 3 sides, so everyone has to sit and the sound gets all weird and tunnely.

We visited a sand sculpture exhibition. It featured 17 monumental installations by famous sand artists from all over the world. Each sculpture had a specific message that the artist tried to communicate visually. Some were light-hearted and humorous, others more reflective and sober. Some were pretty political or satirical. All were quite stunning technically and artistically.

We frolicked in the famous Tivoli Gardens - one of the most famous landmarks in Copenhagen. What makes this place memorable - aside from it being the 2nd oldest amusement park in the world - is how successfully it conjures up a whimsical atmosphere. Amusement parks always have a contrived and commercial feel to me - they are usually just a sea of pavement with a bunch of rides and mustard-splattered condiment stands plopped around helter-skelter, through which hordes of blimp-sized patrons sail from one sweaty line to another. Basically, amusement parks never held any appeal for yours truly.

But Tivoli is special. Just stepping through the entrance gate into a tree-lined alley lit by soft twinkling lights, you know it will be different.

Maybe it's the lights, or the exquisite, exotic plants. Maybe it's the smell of cotton candy, or the rides that look both old-timey and futuristic at the same time, like something out of a graphic novel. I don't know quite what it is, but in Tivoli there is absolutely a sense of wonder and whimsy, something fleeting, ephemeral, and fairy tale-like that hangs in the air. We liked it so much we went twice.

If you get tired of pounding the pavement at street level and decide to climb some stairs - head straight for the Church of Our Savior. 

This crazy construction with its corkscrew of a spire has a staircase winding outside the structure, going right up to the very top. It's wickedly steep and narrow, only wide enough for 2 people to pass each other. Once you crawl through a maze of claustrophobia-triggering anterooms to get to the landing and start climbing the stairs, you will get some awesome open air views of the city.

at some point, the staircase just ENDS. No Platform, no secret door, no nothin'. Just kaput.

Flo finding this out the hard way. Queue the backing-out beeps.

Another great opportunity to work on your glutes is to the visit the Round Tower - also known as Rundetårn - an astronomical observatory tower built in the 17th century by King Christian IV. It is still a functional observatory today, as well as an exhibition hall that hosts art shows and concerts. Like the Church's exterior staircase, this building also has a cool architectural feature - a helical corridor. Basically, an interior ramp that goes all the way up to the top.

view from the observatory

There was a neat exhibition of modern craft going on during our visit. Danes are generally known for their design savvy - furniture, appliances and the like - and this was a good example of their attention to craftsmanship in art.

By now of course your feet are hurting just reading about all that walking. And there surely is a lot of walking to be done, if you want to properly acquaint yourself with Copenhagen. But you will also see tons of people hanging out and picnicking in parks - a total lack of open container laws makes it very convenient - and the many lush and beautifully landscaped gardens and parks in the city mean that you're never far away from a perfect picnic spot.

Kongens Have (The King's Garden) at the Rosenborg Castle located in the center of Copenhagen. Rosenborg was Christian the IV's summer residence. Christian had a palace for every season, naturally, like any self-respecting monarch would. You can also visit the castle, where crown jewels are on display in the treasury.
Botanical Gardens at Rosenborg

This bench served us well in our picnic needs. It's located in the gorgeous and sprawling Fredericksberg Park with canals for gondola rides, a Chinese tea house, waterfalls, cottages and temples. You could get lost wandering here for hours, but we mostly sat on this bench in the never-ending twilight, and drank champagne out of plastic cups. <3

Walking around Copenhagen, you can sometimes get caught up in how neat and orderly the city is. If you ever get lulled into a sense of idyllic monotony, you can easily dissipate it by visiting an area known as the Freetown of Christiania.

Photo from Quirky Guide
You will find this offbeat destination nestled in pretty parkland on the edge of the city, under a cloud of weed smoke, bursting at the seams with every sort of hippie, pusher, street artist, and trippy graffiti wall you can imagine.

In a nutshell, it is an autonomous, self-governing commune located within Copenhagen city limits, which in itself gives it a fuzzy, semi-legal status. It was started in 1971 when some squatters took over abandoned military barracks and basically ceded from the state, whatever that means. The drug trade, though illegal in Denmark, was unofficially tolerated here. I guess the government decided to turn a blind eye on the area as long as these "activities" didn't spill out beyond its borders, but of course Christiania is no stranger to clashes with authorities, crime, and grizzly spouts of gang violence, and under all the weed smoke, reggae jams and outward good will, there is a palpable undercurrent of anarchism. The main street of the commune, aptly named Pusher Street, is lined with colorful pushcarts selling drugs and all the paraphernalia you will need to enjoy them. Huge, menacing "NO PHOTO" signs are posted everywhere, and it is not recommended that you take them lightly, as cameras do get confiscated from insubordinate tourists. We didn't bring our camera, but we did take a couple of phone pics of what I think is the biggest attraction of Christiania - the architecture!

A Christiania residence. Yes, people build their own with whatever is on hand.

We didn't even bother going to any museums or national galleries, of which there are many - we ran out of time. We did, however, take a few day trips out of Copenhagen to see another must-do Danish attraction...



We visited two. The first, Fredericksborg Castle, is located in Hillerod, on the interior of the island of Sealand, about an hour out of Copenhagen by train.

Once you get out of the train at Hillerod, you will probably be tempted to go "awww!", because the town is so darn cute! But then you will remember that you're in Denmark, and that all little Danish towns are absurdly cute.

After a bit of walking, you will spot the castle in the distance, and will be tempted to give a little whistle under you breath.

Fredericksborg was built by Christian the IVth (the guy had serious ambitions as an architect, and no shortage of cash), and is now a national history museum.

the castle is located on 3 islands

the view as you approach the complex

fountains in the main plaza

interior detail

the palace chapel

passage leading to the audience hall. The "curtains" at the end of the hall are carved in marble. The audience hall itself was being renovated, so unfortunately we didn't get to see it.

currently a national museum, the palace hosts a dizzying collection of art, artifacts, and furniture from the Renaissance and Baroque periods. All that used to belong to the royals, of course.

painted ceiling depicting Christian the IV

this mechanical model of the universe takes up half the room and has insane detail inside!

the palace was badly damaged by fire in the 1850s. It was restored with a mix of public funds, crown's money and philanthropic donations. After its restoration, it became a museum and remains one to this day.

There are rooms upon countless rooms of objects from bygone eras

upper floors house modern Danish Art galleries.
Fredericksborg is the largest Renaissance palace in Scandinavia

the grounds are incredible.

the Royal Gardens - straight out of a fairy tale.

it's good to be King.

The other castle we visited was Kronborg, in the town of Helsingor, on the northern coast of Sealand. Kronborg is possibly the most famous of Danish castles, made so by its immortalization in the writings of a certain bard...

Haven't you always to visit a place with a name like "Helsingør"? You might as well whip out your magic wand and dust off your wizard hat, because, let's face it: if it sounds like "Hogwarts" and looks like Hogwarts...

I kid; Helsingor is lovely. It hugs the shore of the sound that separates Denmark from Sweden - Øresund - and looking out across the steely, narrow water, you can easily see Sweden and Helsingor's sister city - Helsinborg (I know, try to keep your consonants straight here) on the other side. Giant ferries slowly glide back and forth between the two in a constant stream, yawing their huge, gaping mouths to let out lines of cars.


a class of young wizards on a field trip enjoying an ice cream break.


As I mentioned, Kronberg is famous for its appearance in a Shakespeare play, Hamlet to be exact. In the play, it is referred to as Elsinore, but apparently, this particular castle and none other served as the inspiration for the setting of Hamlet. By all accounts, Shakespeare himself had never set foot in Denmark, but apparently the castle is described perfectly in the play, down to the last detail. I don't know myself, I haven't read it, though my curiosity has been piqued.

This castle has a long and colorful history. It was originally built as a fortress in early 15th century to guard the sound, and control the passage from the Baltic Sea. The Danish king at the time would collect taxes from any ship that came upon these waters. He would ask the ship's crew to provide a value of their cargo, and would tax them based on that number. If the captain low-balled the value, the King reserved the right to buy the cargo at the stated price. If the value was high, the duties, consequently, would also be high, so it was pretty much a win-win situation for the Danes. For the sneaky, sneaky Danes.

In the 16th century the fortress was transformed into a castle and became a royal residence. Unfortunately, as was common in those days, it was destroyed by fire a few decades after its completion, but was eventually rebuilt by... wait for it... Christian the IV. In the 17th century it was captured by the Swedes, who went on a looting spree and made off with anything that wasn't bolted down. Apparently they haven't returned any of the stuff they stole either, except for some table canopies, and those only because they went out of fashion. And here you thought Scandinavians have always been civilized. Ha!

In the 18th century the royal family abandoned it as a residence and gave it to the army to use as barracks. The army moved out in 1923, and, after a good scrubbin' to remove all the horse manure from the throne room, it became a historic museum open to the public.

Kronborg is A LOT less ornate and aureate than other castles you will see. The renovation that was done after the army vacated was not meant to restore it to its former, Renaissance-era glory, but rather to preserve it in sturdy, working shape, and pay homage to all the iterations it has gone through over the centuries.

a miniature hologram movie showing various aspects of palace life.

the dungeons of Kronborg are a huge and very creepy maze.

Holger the Dane in the dungeon

So, that, my friends, is a quick rundown of how the Danish royals lived. But what if you want to know how non-royal Danes lived? The ones who feed, clothe, and provide an endless stream of revenue to this baffling, useless institution? To find out how the 99% lived throughout Denmark's history, you would have to go to...



Located in the affluent little town of Lyngby about half an hour outside Copenhagen, Frilandsmuseet (open air museum) is an entire village comprised of structures that have been moved here from all across the country. In this one place, you can get an overview of the different landscapes of Denmark (steppes, bogs, forests, coastlines, Faroe islands), and the kind of homesteads and lifestyles that each one informs.

The museum, if you can call it that, is absolutely huge, so it never feels like the houses were crammed into a box for quantity's sake. Each property has its own generous lot with the landscape, garden, even roads and fences that would have been there in its native setting. Inside, everything from furniture down to the last spoon is authentic.

each household has a plaque outside describing the kind of family that would typically occupy it, their living arrangement s and social standing, and how they support themselves.

Walking through this place feels like time travel, as you go from a 16th century farmstead to an 18th century house, from a hut in the woods to a thatched barn out in the open field...

many animals live on site, and there's even a robust agri-science effort taking place in the many gardens and cropfields of Frilandsmuseet.

a blacksmith's foundry

a house typical of the Faroe Islands

several types of wheat are grown in the museum and scientist from Danish universities work here to create more resistant varieties of crops

So there you have it. That pretty much sums up our tour of this little offbeat destination. Something about the aesthetic of this country brought to mind the fairy tales of Hans Christian Anderson. More than once during my time in Denmark I remembered those stories that I so loved as a kid, and thought - yeah, it makes sense that he would write that, I can see where he would get the inspiration.

There is a kind of gentle longing and nostalgia to this place, just a hint of surrealism. Occasionally, we would stumble on something - an object or landscape - that seemed almost spell bound, funny and lovely, but not quite real at the same time, like reality was a few degrees off...

this is a pacifier tree. When kids are ready to give up their pacifiers, they tie it to a tree, usually with a little note saying goodbye, or another personal item like a teddy bear.
Banana house in Christiania
Maybe I was imagining it, or maybe it was the funny light. In any case, to my mind, this country is a great place to hatch some fairy tales. It's also a great place to try New Nordic Cuisine, and I would highly recommend doing so at one of the restaurants in the meatpacking district. Here are some shots of our experience at Fiskebar:

there are few things I love more than a thoughtfully re-purposed building

ok, I love caviar more than a thoughtfully repurposed building.

It's very easy to appreciate why the world is raving about this culinary movement, with its emphasis on sustainable, found and foraged ingredients,  and why a New Nordic restaurant reigned supreme over the gastronomy world for 2 years.

There were a couple of things I found surprising about Denmark:

1. Parts of downtown Copenhagen are quite dirty. Maybe that shouldn't have surprised me - it's a capital, after all - but it did. I guess I expected pristine order. Some of the main commercial streets were badly littered. There were also a lot of homeless people.

2. Graffiti is on everything. I've never seen so many tagged surfaces in my life.

3. Life is on the honor system. No one checks whether you've paid your train fare. No one ties up their bike. How that works in light of numbers 1 and 2, I'm not entirely sure, but the guy from whom we rented our apartment had a few choice words about the current immigration policies, so it seems not everything is honkey-dorey with the multiculturalism experiment.

Speaking of our apartment, we felt right at home here.

Something about being in Europe just feels domestic and familiar, and makes me almost homesick in retrospect. Just another phase in the process of defining "home" for myself. Until next time, Europe. Thank you for a lovely summer interlude.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for another wonderful tour! I want to visit Denmark now. It looks amazing or it was your description + pictures that made it so desirable to see? My impression is that where the harmony lives.