Tuesday 8th May 2012, Copenhagen
We were away bright and early this morning and by 9am were feeling hungry enough to stop on the motorway and make ourselves coffee and a sandwich, Shortly afterwards we crossed the 19 kilometre long Storebaeltbroen bridge that links the islands of Fyn and Sjaeland. Whereas the motorways in Denmark are all free, there are heavy tolls for using the Storebaeltbroen and the Oresundbroen - linking Denmark and Sweden. Fortunately Modestine was charged as a car but we still paid around £34 one way. The ride though was very impressive with the land ahead invisible in the haze and the bridge a long ribbon of steel stretching across the sea with several giant wind turbines gyrating in the waves to one side. At one point as we drove along we were cheerfully hooted by an English campervan overtaking us. Across the back a banner declared “You’ve one life, live it!”
Fyn and Sjaeland
The friendly Dutch couple we met in Dagebüll mentioned an excellent campsite to the north of Copenhagen at Charlottenlund, located inside an old fort. We followed the ring road around the city, turning off down to the sea and found the fort. We are in the moat with a high mound protecting us from the strong winds from the sea on the other side. The toilets, showers and fully equipped kitchen with TV and stylish Scandinavian armchairs are all in an underground bunker and there are several gun emplacements and cannons on the roof, facing out across the sea towards Sweden. Everything about the site is excellent and there is a regular bus to the city centre from outside the gate. We don’t know quite what the price will be but around £30 a night.
We have been disappointed to learn that somebody we had hoped to meet while we are here will unfortunately not be available until next week, by which time we will probably have moved on.
Wednesday 9th May 2012, Copenhagen
This morning we caught the bus into the centre of the city, passing the Tuborg beer factory. You can visit both the Carlsberg and Tuborg works and receive a free beer along the way but with around 70 different museums in Copenhagen they don’t rank anywhere near the top of our list of Must Sees.
The centre of Copenhagen is quite compact and can easily be explored on foot. I was glad though that I’d worn my hiking boots as many of the streets are cobbled and we’ve been walking all day. Perhaps one of the most impressive things about the city is the bicycles. There are thousands of them, much like Amsterdam. And like the Dutch bikes they are huge monsters that move around the city, winding between vehicles and pedestrians at an alarming speed. There are dozens of varieties too, ranging from delivery bikes with huge baskets, to rickshaw bikes carrying visitors, and family bikes with trolleys for carrying the children trailing behind or propped up on two wheels in front. We saw one lady trailing a kennel with a couple of dogs sitting there quite unperturbed as she wove her way between buses and beer tankers.
Our first stop was the famous Tivoli Gardens. It was very quiet so early in the day but when we passed it again later the fairground was in full swing with stomach-churning rides on the helter skelter and people being turned upside down at the top of a ride before being plunged down to earth.
Opposite the gardens was a larger than life statue of Hans Christian Andersen. We were to see several more statues of him as the day wore on. There is a museum in Copenhagen about him and his fairy tales though the one we saw in Odense is apparently far better.
Following a suggested walk around the city centre we passed the town hall and its square with several statues and a fountain with dragons. Beyond we entered the heart of the old town which is theoretically pedestrianised but is full of cyclists. Here we found several museums of curiosities including the Guinness World of Records. They included such things as life size models of the tallest man in the world and a cow with two heads. In the large square in front of the law courts is the site of the old gallows while in the nearby pedestrianised street of Strøget is possibly Denmark’s greatest contribution to modern society, the Lego store! Here we wandered from one marvellous Lego construction to the next. There were Lego policemen bigger than us, huge models of Copenhagen streets, space ships, dolls houses, dinosaurs, jungle scenes with butterflies and much more. I particularly liked the Lego pick and mix. Just like sweeties you chose the bits for your planned construction and filled a tub paying a set price according to weight. There were even computer graphics to help you plan your design and what you’d need to complete it.
All this was great fun but we were on a cultural mission to explore the city. Just off Strøget is the Round Tower, built by Christian IV as an observatory. It has an ascending ramp inside up which Peter the Great is reputed to have galloped his horse in 1715. More recently it has apparently suffered the further indignity of skateboarders descending it like a helter-skelter!
In Højbro Square we found a flamboyant statue of Bishop Absalom. He looked more like a warrior than a man of religion and is considered to have been the founder of Copenhagen.
On the wall of the deconsecrated Nikolaj Kirke we discovered a plaque to Hans Egede, the missionary who converted the Innuit in Greenland to Christianity in the late 17th century.
By the time we reached the National Theatre we were beginning to flag. It had been a brilliant morning but we’d seen so many things we were suffering visual overload and it was time for lunch. There are hundreds of restaurants, terraces, cafes and bars selling the entire range of Danish food. That’s to say something on a slice of heavy brown bread. There are also the usual burger bars, pizza places and dismal hot dog stands to be found in every city across Europe except that here they tend to cost more. We struck lucky in finding a relatively inexpensive bar that was very similar in atmosphere to an English pub but serving Danish food. There was no choice of menu. You asked for lunch at the counter and were served at your table with a bottle of Tuborg beer and three smørrebrød – slices of heavy rye bread with assorted toppings. They bought us six different ones between us so we cut them all in half to share. It’s a bit like Scandinavian tapas. Small groups of diners at the other tables seemed to be regular customers and the price was 65 kroner each. In the more touristy streets that price would barely cover the smørrebrød and the beer would be extra.
We returned to the streets taking in the Charlottenborg Palace which now houses the royal art collections on our way to Nyhavn – the harbour area. This is a very pleasant district with old sailing ships moored along the quayside and many enticing waterfront restaurants. Here we saw a traditional brewer’s dray from one of the lager producers and discovered Speaker’s Corner where political gatherings take place. Fronting the harbour is the very modern Playhouse with the National Opera across the water opposite the Royal Palace of Amalienborg.
We reached Amalienborg just in time to miss the changing of the guard which takes place daily when Queen Margrethe II is in residence. The palace consists of four identical buildings around a large cobbled square. In the centre is an equestrian statue of King Frederik V. The French sculptor spent thirty years at the court’s expense creating it and, according to our guidebook, it is reputed to have cost as much as the palace itself! Soldiers wearing busbies are on duty to guard the Queen. She occupies two of the buildings and has a view out across the harbour towards the Opera House. The remaining two buildings on the square are used as a museum of the Royal Family where visitors can discover everything they never knew about the Danish kings Frederik VIII and IX and Christian IX and X - they seem to have unimaginatively alternated their names and numbers. We did not stop to hone up on our knowledge of the Danish royal family, using the palace cloakrooms simply as an appropriate place for a royal flush. The family though are held in great esteem by the population with photos up all over the country and souvenir shops filled with postcards of the Royals in their very smartest clothes.
Behind the palace is the Marble Church, a large domed building similar to St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. It dominates the skyline and is finished in Danish Marble.
We were now heading out of the centre of the city to seek out the Little Mermaid. Along the way we stopped to look in at the Museum of Danish Design and continued to the Churchill Gardens in which we discovered not only a bust of Sir Winston but the Anglican Church of St. Albans. It was very strange to see something so quintessentially English here. Built in the 1880s in flint with stained glass windows by English designers, with a Royal Doulton pulpit and screen it could have come straight from a Surrey village. The church was built for the Danish princess who married the Prince of Wales and later became Queen Alexandra, wife of Edward VII.
Nearby there is also a Russian Orthodox church with its golden dome. Also nearby is the museum of the Danish Resistance during WW2 and what is reputed to be Copenhagen’s most impressive fountain, the Gefion fountain.
Just as my feet were about to mutiny we found the little mermaid. She sits demurely on a large granite boulder at the edge of the sea and she is surprisingly small. She was given to the city by the director of the Carlsberg brewery in 1913. Eventually, in a brief lull between coach loads of Japanese tourists posing beside her we took the obligatory photo and searched around for what we really wanted – a souvenir stall selling chocolate mermaids. Mermaids a plenty we found but not in chocolate. We reckon Copenhagen is missing a great opportunity here. Belgian chocolate manufacturers would surely be delighted to trade with Denmark and to make something prettier than a mannikin pis! And that is why we wanted a chocolate mermaid. Kernow Bunny and Mannikin Pis have been awaiting the photoshot of the century when they could be photographed with the little mermaid. It is not to be! Now their days may well be numbered.
We climbed the ramparts of the nearby citadel offering views across the harbour. It is still used as a military fort.
Back in the Churchill gardens we sank onto a terrace and ordered a couple of coffees while under the table we removed our shoes. Bliss! It’s astonishing how quickly we recovered and as we made our way through the typically Scandinavian residential area of St. Paul’s Gade flecks of rain freshened the air. We crossed to the King’s Garden with its neatly trimmed hedges and the Rosenborg Palace set in its moat. It was built in the Dutch renaissance style as the country residence of King Christian IV who died there in 1648. The Crown Jewels are also apparently on display.
As the rain increased we returned to the busy centre of the city, crowded with cyclists returning home from work and young travellers enjoying the more lively scene of fashion shops, cafes, record shops and countless Irish pubs. I’d hoped the Danish Design Centre would be free but it was 30 kroner and on the point of closing when we arrived. Never mind. This evening I found loads about it on the internet leaving us free to explore other things in the city tomorrow.
By the time we were on the bus heading back to Charlottenlund it was raining very heavily. Watching the cyclists peddling along in the slush from the bus wheels we were grateful to be dry inside. We then discovered the bus was only going half way and we needed to change, waiting for ten minutes in the rain. Hey ho. We got back to Modestine soaking wet. At least we could cook ourselves a hot supper using the free equipment in the kitchen inside the bunker.
Thursday10th May 2012, Copenhagen
It was 2am before I finished yesterday’s account. So it’s hardly surprising that we slept until 9am this morning and didn’t get going around the city until nearly 11am. We’d done most of the sights in the centre yesterday and while there is undoubtedly much to see further out, we don’t really have the time necessary to explore the suburbs. There are day tickets one can buy for the transport system covering trains, buses, metro and water buses but it all takes planning to get the most out of it. Personally I was still tired and my feet ached from walking on the cobbles all day yesterday. It has also been raining all day.
We got off the bus before it reached the city centre so we could visit the cathedral. Built in 1829 in a severe classical style the interior is rather bare except for the stunning marble sculptures of the saints and apostles. These are the work of Bertel Thorvaldsen probably Denmark’s most gifted ever sculptor and were produced during the mid 19th century. The cathedral provides the perfect setting for these twenty or so statues, all obviously the work of one master. There is a separate museum of his works in the grounds of the Christiansborg where we discovered a mural depicting how the marble was selected and shipped to the city for Thorvaldsen to work and several illustrations of pieces he’d created.
The former Christiansborg Palace is set on an island in the city. It was one of the royal palaces but is now the seat of the government. It is a massive, ponderous building in the classical style with ornate barrel ceilings, huge columns, marble corridors and large gilt mirrors.
Crossing the wet cobbles outside we reached the attractive, brick-built Stock Exchange, its tall spire covered by three writhing dragons.
From here on the area became desolate with modern glass building fronting onto the water. This is where we found the National Library of Denmark. It was heaving with activity, possibly the busiest place in town. Outside there were thousands and thousands of bicycles while inside there were thousands and thousands of students each one clutching a portable computer. There was not a vacant seat to be found but we were hard pressed to find any books anywhere. It was all cafes, lounges, exhibition areas, moving pavements linking the different floors, self service computers and online help to find your way around the resources of the library. In an emergency human help could be found from the enquiry office on level four. Everyone seemed on the move, the only quiet area being in the reading room. We peeped in, again every place was occupied and almost everyone was using a computer.
There were long queues for a sandwich and coffee so after exploring around we left. Outside it was raining heavily and I was limping on the cobbles despite the protection of my hiking boots. By the time we found the restaurant of yesterday they’d sold all their smørrebrød and really we wanted to try something different anyway. Back in the town though it was pizza, hot dogs, sausage rolls, hamburgers and filled rolls, mostly to be eaten in the street. Otherwise there were expensive, though doubtless pleasant, restaurants. We eventually found a really good Turkish restaurant serving a buffet lunch along with Turkish beer at an affordable price. It was an excellent place and our only regret was that by the time we’d eaten our selection of the many available dishes we’d loaded onto our plates we were too full to go back to try some of the others.
During the afternoon we escaped the rain by visiting the National Museum, which has a wonderful collection on Danish history and prehistory. We never got further than the prehistory section before the closing announcement boomed over the tannoy. The captions were in Danish and English, excellently concise and informative and the exhibits breathtaking. Wonderful polished stone axes, well preserved pots from burial sites, gold bracelets and torques, massive amber necklaces, pieces in bone and made from antlers, which was a sacred material to the stone-age peoples. The bogs in this part of the world preserve artefacts wonderfully, much as in Ireland, indeed bodies from three thousand years ago can be seen, remarkably intact including the clothes they were buried in. Even the patterns on the clothing can be made out. In some instances it was clear that the individuals had been sacrificed and placed in the bog, much like Lindow man who was discovered in the peat bogs of Cheshire in the 1980s. In other instances women had offered the gods their braided hair, which was beautifully preserved. They were probably Celtic as it had a strong red colour.
Other treasures were placed in the bogs as ritual offerings or buried with chieftains. There were finely made swords, massive round shields, chased gold and silver bowls, and the impressive curving lurs, horns which seem only to have been blown in rituals and then buried.
One of the most remarkable items was an entire chariot, covered in metal ornamentation. We were already scampering through the galleries when we reached the Viking period, so only just reached the transition from prehistory to history with the collection of rune stones. The medieval and modern galleries will have to await a future visit.
Related links from our earlier blogs
Denmark - fairy tales, runes and lego Includes Odensa and Hans Christian Andersen’s home.