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Once upon a time… in Copenhagen

Once upon a time… in Copenhagen

Emmanuel Tresmontant - 2009-11-23

From its origins in 1167 as a humble fishing village, to its heyday as the dazzling capital of the Danish empire, to its current position as a leading design capital and well-known Scandinavian city, explore the medieval streets, 17th century canals and modern architecture of Copenhagen.

Along with Norway and Sweden, Denmark, which can be compared to a rooster's crest perched above Germany, is part of the geographical and linguistic region of Scandinavia. Consisting of the Jutland peninsula and 406 islands spread between the North Sea and the Baltic, the capital of this 16,150 square mile country is situated on the north-eastern coast of the largest island, ten miles from Sweden across the Øresund Strait.
With just over 30% of its 5.3 million population living in and around the capital, Copenhagen has changed phenomenally over the past ten years. Its international airport has doubled in capacity, a new fully automated metro system has been built, new residential districts have been laid out in the former docks and a magnificent opera house is being built on the seafront.
Since 2000, a 10 mile fixed link (made up of a tunnel, artificial island and the suspension bridge, Øresundbroen) connects Copenhagen to Malmö in Sweden. It now only takes thirty-five minutes to travel between the two towns by train.
However, although København (Copenhagen in Danish, meaning 'merchant's port') has become one of Europe's most prosperous regions, it still remains a charming pocket-sized city with splendid palaces, copper-roofed houses and cobbled squares.
The first day in Copenhagen
When arriving at Kastrup airport, the easiest way to travel into town is to take the fast S-train. Collect your luggage and head for the DSB (Danish railway) counter in terminal 3. It only takes 12 minutes to the Copenhagen central station (Hovedbanegården).
Leaving the station, the tourist office is only a few steps away and the main pedestrian shopping street (Strøget), cutting across the centre of town, takes 5 minutes to reach. While there is no shortage of buses and taxis, you will be impressed by the many bicycle lanes.
The bike is king here (there are two for every inhabitant): not content with having priority over motorists, cyclists generally don't bother to use their bell so be careful when crossing streets!
Drop off your luggage at your hotel and, with a town map in hand, head to one of the city's most picturesque districts: Nyhavn. This harbour was excavated in the 17th century to allow ships reach the Royal New Square (Kongens Nytorv).
Sailors, merchants, adventurers and inns of ill-repute contributed for a long time to the notorious reputation of its quaysides where the storywriter Hans Christian Andersen* once lived. Today, its colourful houses include many sidewalk cafes where you can gaze at the boats and enjoy a frokost tallerken (lunch dish): a typically Danish dish of herring or salmon and fresh vegetables.
A snapshot tour of the city
At the western end of Nyhavn, next to an immense anchor dedicated to Danish sailors who fell during the Second World War, you'll find the landing stage for boat tours (kanalrundfart) along the canals and around the harbour. For just over an hour, you can sit back and discover some of the capital's most beautiful places and monuments as they glide by. Ideal on a sunny day, some of the sights you can expect to see include…
The new opera house, in particular, is a spectacular building by the Danish architect Henning Larsen who also designed the famous Sydney opera house in Australia. Built on the Holmen peninsula (one of the city's up-and-coming residential and artistic districts), it is located opposite to Copenhagen's most beautiful baroque square: Amalienborg, the royal palace where the Queen still lives today. Separated by the sea, these two buildings of different styles and from different periods complement each other amazingly well…
Big attraction in Denmark and one of the most photographed statues in the world, The Little Mermaid (Den Lille Havfrue) is of course the symbol of Copenhagen!
Dating from 1619, the stock exchange (Børsen) is one of the capital's oldest buildings. Somewhat overlooked by tourists, its Dutch Renaissance style architecture is nevertheless magnificent, with its unusual spire made up of the intertwining tails of four dragons. The three crowns at the top represent the three countries of the Danish empire at that time: Denmark, Sweden and Norway.
Typical of Danish architecture and design, the Copenhagen Library is regarded as the city's most beautiful contemporary building. This amazing cube (remember that Denmark invented Lego!) is in fact an annex of the Royal Library founded in 1653. Its shiny black granite exterior has earned it the nickname of the Black Diamond' (Den Sorte Diamant). Inside are all the original manuscripts by the great Danish authors, from H. C. Andersen to Karen Blixen and not forgetting Søren Kierkegaard.
Is there a Danish art de vivre?
The majority of Danes admit to being 'happy'. They are even, we are told, the happiest people in Europe! True, only 12% live under the poverty line, and just 4.9% are unemployed, but another reason the Danes have been able to cope with the rocky psychological road of globalisation is their typically Scandinavian social system.
Egalitarian and law-abiding, Danes are strongly attached to their welfare state, a government model which offers superior public services and solid social safety nets in exchange for very high taxation. Furthermore, as a rule, Danes believe in the equality of the sexes and they give greater importance to their families and children than their work.
But one can't really talk about the national art de vivre – the art of living - without mentioning two qualities near and dear to the Danish people: their sincere appreciation of the royal family and their deep love of nature. If you visit Rosenborg Park, where King Christian IV (1577-1648) built a splendid castle in the early 17C, you'll be able to appreciate the best of both.
With VAT at 25%, today's Denmark is one of those European countries where fine dining is an indulgence. Save for special occasions, visitors will probably want to take most of their meals at smorgasbords or grab some rødepølser, a favourite local snack which consists of grilled red sausages sold on the street like frankfurters.
In this town, fantasy and originality are never far away. For example, the city of Copenhagen has ruled against allowing large supermarkets and megastores to crowd out and replace traditional shops. As a result, the trade districts abound with the sort of place you won't find anywhere else, from the shops of master amber craftsmen (an art handed down from the Vikings) to those of manufacturers of duck down duvets.
Near Strøget, Pistolstræde is a charming street lined with 18C houses and pretty shops. Further west, the University quarter is a lively, heterogeneous neighbourhood where chic boutiques rub elbows with student cafés and the occasional covered passageway connects neighbouring streets. Luminous and sun-splashed, Gråbrødretorv is a small, picturesque square - ideal for enjoying a glass of something in summer.
Copenhagen by night
Copenhagen boasts a magical place, the Tivoli gardens, ideally discovered at dusk when its 110,000 flower bulbs and Chinese lanterns hanging from the trees create a romantic glow.
These flower gardens, located between City Hall Square (Rådhuspladsen) and the central station (Hovedbanegården), are one of the world's oldest amusement parks, inaugurated in 1843. 100,000 square yards large, they are also amongst Denmark's most visited tourist attractions with more than 3 million visitors a year. With its roller-coasters, lake, Chinese and Persian palaces, haunted house, dodgems, Tivoli attracts young and old alike.
From Rubinstein to Rostropovitch, most of the great 20th century soloists have performed in the Tivoli concert hall which also serves as a cinema.
Here you can watch silent film masterpieces, while the film music is played by a real symphony orchestra. For a meal after a show, Tivoli boasts many international restaurants. If you're looking to escape from the madding crowd, we suggest you follow Strøget up to Kongens Nytorv Square (next to Nyhavn). There, you may dine 'til midnight at the bar of the very posh Hôtel d'Angleterre: muted lighting, retro decor, impeccable service, hamburgers and club sandwiches prepared with care – all the charm of a luxury hotel at affordable prices.
If there is just time for one…
Copenhagen has several world-class museums but if you only have time to visit one, head for Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, located close to the Tivoli gardens.
Established in 1882 by the brewer Carl Jacobsen (of Carlsberg fame), this museum is as well known for its winter garden and its tearoom as for its collections of Impressionist and post-Impressionist paintings: Sisley, Pissaro, Degas, Renoir, Cézanne, Manet, Berthe Morisot, Toulouse-Lautrec, Vuillard, Bonnard and above all Gauguin (it is little known that his wife was Danish). An entire room is devoted to him, exhibiting both paintings from his Brittany period and those, most famously, painted in Tahiti.
*Like Victor Hugo in France or William Shakespeare in England, Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875) is considered a national symbol in Denmark. Danes everywhere have read him and still admire him. Translated into countless languages, his 173 tales (The Little Mermaid, The Ugly Duckling, etc.) are read in primary schools as far away as China. H. C. Andersen had however written them for adults. Throughout 2005, Copenhagen will be hosting numerous activities to celebrate the two hundredth anniversary of the birth of this great storyteller. If you are passing through the City Hall Square (Rådhuspladsen), keep an eye out for the H. C. Andersen statue in the one corner his knees are polished shiny from young children crawling onto his lap in hope of a story!
Wonderful Copenhagen
Nørregade 7B
1165 Copenhagen K
Tel: 0045 3325 7400

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