Travelogue: Copenhagen

The Fabulous Wife and I are back from three weeks in Scandinavia. We spent the first week in Copenhagen, Denmark. After that we flew to Bergen, Norway and explored fjord country for five days. Then we took a train to Oslo for a long weekend in Norway’s capital city, and finished our trip with a five-night stay in Stockholm, Sweden.

I brought back enough material for at least ten posts. The Fabulous Wife and I keep journals on our big trips, and I wrote forty thousand words worth of daily recollections. But since I already torture readers enough, I’ll summarize. I’ll also start with the simple stuff: what did we do?

We’ve traveled to Europe four times previously and if we’ve learned anything, it’s that jet lag is inevitable and we will lose time to it. Rather than short-shrift our first destination as we did on our very first trip, when we started in Amsterdam and spent just three days there, we gave Copenhagen extra time. We were not sorry.

We arrived at our hotel mid-day after 16 hours in transit, so the first thing we did after washing up was take a nap. Then we took a stroll on the Strøget, a pedestrian thoroughfare that runs east to west through the town’s heart. It’s tourist-trappy, but also reflective of local culture, so we realized some very basic things, including that this would be our first foreign trip where we would be unfamiliar with the language everyplace we went.

This was made easier by the fact that almost everyone in Scandinavia speaks fluent English, but for someone with a lifelong love of language it’s still deflating. Spelling has never been a problem for me — I went to the regional finals of the National Spelling Bee when I was in seventh grade — but even now, using reference materials, I’m not sure I’m spelling Scandinavian words correctly. And as for pronunciation, I was so intimidated that just saying thanks (“tack”) came out in a tentative mumble. With The Fabulous Wife I used mnemonics to get by. For instance, we found a small chain of coffee and pastry shops we liked called the Lagkagehuset. The whole time we were in Copenhagen, I called it the Luggage House.

On our first full day we took a long walk to the hippie part of town, Christiania. No sooner did we arrive than we witnessed a drug bust! All of a sudden the scruffy pot dealers twenty feet ahead of us on the street called Pusher’s Alley did a mad scatter, and then there were police everywhere. Had this been America, I’d have pulled The Fabulous Wife to the ground and looked for a protective barrier in case guns started blazing. But we never got that sense of danger here. We just walked around the trouble and watched as the police gathered suspects.

Christiania — where the ethic is “pot okay, hard drugs not.”

We also took in beautiful but touristy Nyhavn, full of boats and old houses and expensive outdoor eateries:

Nyhavn

See that light brown building in the middle? It was built in 1756, the year Mozart was born.

Our third day in Copenhagen was probably our worst for jet lag. It was also cold and rainy, so we went to the National Gallery of Denmark and spent a few hours with its remarkable collection. I hope to do a separate post on the art we saw, so will hold off on details here.

Our fourth day was also windy, cold, and bad for jet lag, so we visited the Rosenborg Castle, originally built as a summer palace by Christian IV (an important figure in Scandinavian history) in the early seventeenth century and continually expanded until it became a fully functioning home for royalty. The secure sub-basement houses Denmark’s crown jewels:

The king’s and queen’s crowns in the old days.

The weather was better on Friday, so we took a side trip to Malmö, Sweden, just across the Øresund channel from Copenhagen. (About that umlaut and slashed-oh thing: adding to my sense of linguistic inadequacy were all those extra vowels in Scandinavian languages, which I never figured out.) Malmö has the tallest building in Scandinavia, a residential tower called the Twisting Torso:

The Twisting Torso

The next day we headed to one of Copenhagen’s famed attractions, the Tivoli, which opened in the 1840s and is reputedly the world’s first amusement park. It’s twenty acres of good, clean fun, more reminiscent of a mid-twentieth century American amusement park (minus the seedy sideshows) than corporate juggernauts like Disney or those multiple flags over [your state name here] roller-coaster thrill mills. We returned at night for a concert of safe but well-played jazz and a firework-filled light show, which was great fun.

On our last full day in Copenhagen we visited the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek. Carlsberg is the guy who started the brewery of the same name. At one point I heard someone explain that Carlsberg beers (and Danish beers in general) are low in alcohol content on purpose, so people can drink more of them at social occasions without getting wasted. If so, that was a winning financial strategy, as evidenced by all the great sculptures and paintings Mr. Carlsberg bought for his glypto-whatever.

A few random notes. We saw a lot of natives wearing New York Yankee caps. We met a former San Franciscan who runs a burrito shop on Frederiksholms Kanal and asked her about it, since she was wearing one too. She said she liked the cap not because of any allegiance to the Yankees, or even American baseball, but because of its fit (the bill curves with inerrant symmetry, which, if you’ve ever tried to customize a baseball cap, you know is hard). Also, there are tons of magpies in Copenhagen, plus crows that aren’t black. And every lake seems to have at least one swan, perhaps by design. We heard very few songbirds in the morning, though, and overall I don’t think Denmark’s capital is a hospitable place for little birds.

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