Sunday, 15 July 2012

DENMARK: WONDERFUL, FUNDERFUL COPENHAGEN


SPANORAMA: Copenhagen skyline and the
Oresund Bridge linking Denmark and Sweden

The oldest pub in Copenhagen, Hviids Vinstue, is an unbeatable nightspot with an unpronounceable name. The extra bold Gothic type used in the signs on the front of the building is baffling — the H looks like an S and the V looks like a B — so I asked the barman: “What’s this pub called?” When he answered, I thought he was choking and almost grabbed him in the Heimlich manoeuvre.
Hviids Vinstue (www.hviidsvinstue.dk), a stone’s throw from Kongens Nytorv metro station, opened in 1723. The night I was there it closed at 2am, and among the reluctant departees was a young woman who’d fallen off her bike outside. The staff helped her to a table, applied a bag of ice to her injured ankle and she ended up happily sipping Tuborg until a taxi was called to take her and her bike home.
Copenhagen has more than 300 kilometres of dedicated cycle lanes, and one in three people pedal to work, school or college every day. But beware if you so much as poke a toe into a bike lane before the green crossing signal flashes you’ll get a stinker of a look. Heaven forbid you should cause a cyclist to brake abruptly, because in their eyes that’s a heinous crime, up there with being cruel to kittens.

CYCLE DANES: One in three Copenhagers ride
to school or work using dedicated bike lanes
Close to the canalside hotspot of Nyhavn, Hviids Vinstue is one of those rare refuges with no music, no TV and no gaming machines. With its oak-panelled interior, cosy nooks and low-slung lampshades it’s the perfect place to chill out and enjoy peace and quiet, pints and aquavit after a hard day’s sightseeing. If you take a tumble and hurt your ankle, it can chill out too.
The Drop Inn (www.drop-inn.dk) at 34 Kompagnistraede was for many years my No1 Copenhagen pub, but Hviids Vinstue has leapfrogged it into the top spot. Nevertheless, a great night of live jazz, blues and blues rock that goes on until 5am is guaranteed at my former favourite.
Nyhavn is a joy to behold. Once the city’s red light district that was known to sailors the world over, it’s packed with bars and restaurants occupying the colourful 17th and 18th century townhouses that line the canal from Kongens Nytorv to the choppier sea channel.

HAVN A NICE TIME: Sunbathers enjoy Nyhavn 
Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875) lived on and off for more than 20 years in top-floor apartments in three of these townhouses numbers 18, 20 and 67 and wrote many of his best-known fairytales while watching the comings and goings below. Andersen, who never tired of sitting for photographers, was a bighead with a big nose, but his most outstanding feature didn’t seem to bother him and he invariably had his picture taken in profile.
His stories have been translated into more than 150 languages, sold countless millions of copies and delighted children down the generations, but he never found happiness. The author of The Ugly Duckling, Thumbelina, The Emperor’s New Clothes, The Princess and the Pea and The Little Mermaid is revered by readers, but the love he tried to express to the objects of his desire was never returned. Young women didn’t take his romantic overtures seriously, and in later life he turned his attentions to young males but with the same results, and he died a sad old man.
FAIRY-TAIL: The Little Mermaid
Three out of four visitors to Copenhagen go to see sculptor Edvard Eriksen’s Little Mermaid, who sits on a rock in the water at Langelinje, a 15-minute stroll from Nyhavn. The bronze figure was a gift to the city from brewer Carl Jacobsen, better known as Mr. Carlsberg, and was unveiled on August 23, 1913. During a visit to the Royal Theatre in 1909 for a performance of the ballet, The Little Mermaid, Jacobsen was so blown away by solo dancer Ellen Price that he asked her to pose for a statue. Price agreed, but drew the line at posing naked, so what you see is the ballerina’s head on Eriksen’s wife’s body.
In Andersen’s fairytale, the mermaid falls for a handsome young prince she saves from drowning and asks a witch to give her legs so she can join him on the land. The witch agrees, but extracts a terrible price — the mermaid’s sweet voice. Despite loving her, the prince is obliged to marry a beautiful princess from a neighbouring kingdom, which spells death for the mermaid. If she drove a knife into the prince’s heart and his blood dripped on her feet she would regain her tail and could return to the sea. But the mermaid can’t bring herself to do it, and throws herself into the waves where she immediately turns into sea foam.
The statue has been a target over the years for vandals who’ve beheaded it and sawn the right arm off, but the original mould has allowed for speedy repairs, and pranksters — or perhaps prudes — have several times painted a bra on it. Those spoilsports at the US National Ocean Service recently had a go too. Responding to public inquiries, they insisted mermaids don’t exist, though I suppose that says more about those who asked than those who answered.

HIGH ANXIETY: Star Flyer, world's tallest carousel
Tivoli Gardens amusement park (www.tivoli.dk), slap-bang in the city centre, is a magnet for visitors, but not everyone who steps through its gates (nearly four million admissions last year) is daring or daft enough to step on board the scariest rides, which you can check out on YouTube.
THE DEMON is a floorless, hardcore roller coaster that reaches 80kph as it zooms through three loops and umpteen twists during 106 seconds of thrills, otherwise known as sheer terror. Verdict: Why, oh why do I let myself get talked into these things? Fear factor: I want my mommy!
STAR FLYER is the world’s tallest carousel. Riders sit in paired chairs on the end of chains and are hoisted, spinning, to a height of 80 metres. Round and round and up and down the pylon you go, pretending you’re loving it while praying the chains won’t snap. Verdict: Offers the best panoramic view of Copenhagen, but only for those who don’t have their eyes squeezed shut. Fear factor: Blind panic.
THE GOLDEN TOWER should be called the White As A Sheet Tower. Sit down, buckle up and, a few seconds later, your lower legs will be dangling in mid-air 63 metres above the ground. Then, without warning, the brakes are released, your backside lifts momentarily out of the seat and you plunge, screaming and fearing for your life, at 77kph. Verdict: What goes up must come dooooooooooooown! Fear factor: I’ve changed my mind, please, please let me off of this.
VERTIGO is evil. Two biplanes on the end of giant arms like clock hands reach speeds of 100kph as they loop the loop (you choose whether to fly backward or forward). When the operator sniggers like Mutley and hits the turbo button, rubbery-faced riders are subjected to a G-force of 5.2. Verdict: Guilty, but insane. Fear factor: Never, ever, EVER again.

PLANE CRAZY: Vertigo
     Tivoli, which opened in August 1843, was the brainchild of quick-thinking Danish army officer Georg Carstensen (1812-1857) who sought the right to develop the 15-acre site it occupies from King Christian VIII. The busy monarch, who was preoccupied with the affairs of state and even more so with the state of his affairs — he fathered 10 illegitimate children — gave Carstensen five minutes to state his case, but the deal was done in five seconds.

“Majesty,” said Georg, “when the people are amusing themselves, they do not bother with politics.”
“Carry on then,” said the king, who was a man of few words.
Carstensen packed his park with exotic buildings, bandstands, a theatre, concert hall, rides, cafes and restaurants and flower gardens of every hue. Lamps and lanterns added more colour at night, music was always in the air and fireworks displays were reflected to full effect in the lake.
It soon became and remains Denmark’s leading visitor attraction and was among the main inspirations for Disneyland in Arnaheim, California. So impressed was Walt Disney by Carstensen’s creation that he insisted his own theme park, which would be 10 times bigger, should emulate Tivoli’s “happy and unbuttoned air of relaxed fun”.

FLASH PHOTOGRAPHY: Tivoli festive fireworks
Tivoli’s open from April to September and for two weeks in the run-up to Hallowe’en, but my favourite time to visit is during the festive season when it’s transformed into a magical, snow-covered landscape with ice sculptures, market stalls and 120,000 Christmas lights. It’s a fabulous, twinkling spectacle and I’ve seen dads moved to tears by the wide-eyed looks of wonder on their little ones’ faces.
Summer must be hellish for the sweltering soldiers on sentry duty at Amalienborg Palace in their buttoned-tight ceremonial tunics and bearskin hats. Completed in 1760 and set around an octagonal courtyard, it’s actually four identical palaces that were the homes of noblemen until 1794 when the royals moved in after Christiansborg Palace burned down.
Every day at 11.30am the Royal Life Guards march through the streets from Rosenborg Castle to Amalienborg and take up their posts. Unlike their stony-faced counterparts in London, the Danish lads smile for photos, but only when Queen Margrethe is out of town. When she’s at home a flag flies above Christian IX’s Palace, her official residence, and the guards go all serious.
TO THE MANOR BORG: Amalienborg
and, below, the Royal Yacht Dannebrog

The Queen, who’s 72, the mother of two sons and a granny eight times over, ascended the throne in 1972 following the death of her father, Frederick IX, and is the first female monarch since Margrethe I who reigned from 1375 to 1412. Hugely popular, she’s a chain-smoking (though not in public) accomplished painter, fashion designer and translator who’s fluent in five languages.
Berthed in the harbour in front of Amalienborg, the Royal Yacht Dannebrog has travelled more than 600,000 kilometres since it entered service in 1932. It’s an impressive vessel on which the Queen and her family tour Denmark in the summer, with visits also to the Danish territories of Greenland and the Faroe Islands (in times of national emergency it can be converted to a hospital ship).
Dannebrog seen from close up is one of the highlights of the popular canal and harbour tours (www.canaltours.com) that take in many of the city’s most photographed sights including the Black Diamond extension to the Royal Library, so called for its black granite cladding and irregular angles, and the futuristic Opera House. More energetic visitors might like to join a kayak sightseeing safari (www.kajakole.dk) which is great fun but exhausting if, like me, your arms are more used to picking up pints than paddling.

SEA THE SIGHTS: Take a canal tour and see
the futuristic waterfront Opera House, below

Back on dry land, or rather the bit of it that I regard as hallowed ground, the Carlsberg Brewery Visitors Centre (www.visitcarlsberg.dk) in the Vesterbro district houses the biggest collection of unopened beer bottles in the world — 21,811 of them, from every part of the globe. How anyone can amass so many without sampling the contents is a mystery to me, and one that also baffled many of my fellow pilgrims on the tour.
The man who started the collection, Danish engineer Leif Sonne, took up his unusual hobby in 1968 and kept the bottles at his home in the provincial town of Svendborg until 1993 when, with his floorboards creaking under the weight of 10,376 of them, he donated the lot to Carlsberg. Since then the brewery, Mr. Sonne and beer-loving visitors have continued to add to the collection which keeps getting lager and larger.
Among the star exhibits is a bottle of Jacobsen Vintage No.1 from 2008. Only 600 individually-labelled bottles were produced with a price tag of 2,800 kroner (€270) each, making it the world’s most expensive beer. There’s also a bottle of Guinness, one of a couple of hundred that were filled from a cask found on a beach in Jutland in 1943. No one knows who bottled it, but they went to the bother of printing labels that, curiously, bear an illustration of a sailing ship rather than the famous Guinness harp.
In an admirable gesture of appreciation to Mr. Sonne and to mark his 65th birthday in 2000, Carlsberg brewed a dark lager and named it after him, but there’s no record of his having tried it.
GLASS ACT: Carlsberg Brewery's beer bottle
collection and, below, entrance to Christiania

In the so-called free town of Christiania on the site of a former army camp, dope dealers operate openly on Pusher Street where, not surprisingly, photos are banned — some weeks ago a journalist with a hidden camera was rumbled and roughed up. Visitors who abide by the rules in this self-proclaimed autonomous community of 900 people have nothing to fear, though I nearly crashed my bike when I saw what I thought was the Grim Reaper cycling towards me. I imagine the unfortunate man, who was painfully thin and deathly grey with sunken eyes in a skeletal face, was seriously ill and I shouldn’t have gawped, but his appearance came as a shock.
It was a jarring introduction to this city-within-a-city which is home, on one hand, to an overwhelming majority of law-abiding and hard-working free spirits and, on the other, a small number of work-shy dropouts, druggies and anti-authoritarian wasters. National opinion is divided. Many liberals insist Christiania’s existence reflects the Danes’ trademark tolerance — a shining example of live and let live — while the more conservative say it’s the disastrous and embarrassing result of political dithering and weak policing.

SQUATTERFRONT: Christiania lakeside home
Whatever your view, Christiania (www.christiania.org), which was first occupied by squatters in 1971, is a fascinating place and remains a major tourist attraction. Many of the wooden-built waterfront residences are quite splendid, while the public buildings including a concert hall (where Bob Dylan has played), restaurants, cafes, shops and workshops sport artful graffiti. Away from Pusher Street where the dealers are constantly on edge, the atmosphere is extremely laid-back. No one appears to be in a hurry, though that probably has a lot to do with the no-running rule — running is associated with raids by the Drugs Squad.
Christiania Bikes are a familiar sight on the streets of Copenhagen. These trendy tricycles with a large box between the two front wheels are great for taking the shopping home (the city’s postal service uses 100 of them for mail deliveries), but they’ve been especially embraced by parents who buy child-carrying versions. Built in Christiania and sold throughout Denmark, Germany and Switzerland, they’re also exported to the UK and the US where their environmentally-friendly credentials are a major selling point.

LOAD OF FUN: Load-carrying Christiania trike
Copenhagen’s enjoying a surge in visitor numbers, particularly from Ireland and Britain, thanks in no small part to the popularity of gritty TV cop series The Killing. Although it unflatteringly paints the city as a wet, cold and miserable place with more than its share of killers and corrupt politicians, the fact behind the fiction is altogether different. The Danish capital isn’t exempt from rain and snow, being on the same line of latitude as Glasgow and Moscow, but when the sun shines and everyone heads for the parks and canalside terraces there are few long-weekend destinations to match it.
Whether you go for sightseeing or shopping, the friendly and fun-loving citizens — by far the jolliest of all Scandinavians — will welcome you with Copen arms.
˜For more information on sights, attractions, activities and shopping (non-EU visitors can claim an 18 per cent refund of the 25 per cent sales tax), see www.visitcopenhagen.com.

GETTING THERE
SAS Scandinavian Airlines, Europe’s most punctual airline in 2009, 2010 and 2011, flies twice a day from Dublin to Copenhagen with prices from €85 one way. The airline also operates an extensive timetable from Heathrow, Manchester, Birmingham and Aberdeen with fares from £84 one way. For travellers from the United States, SAS flies from New York, Chicago and Washington from $995 return. All fares include taxes and charges, free 23-kilo baggage allowance, free online check-in, Eurobonus points, 25 per cent child discount, free newspapers, coffee and tea in economy class (www.flysas.ie).

GETTING AROUND
Free City Bikes (www.bycyklen.dk) are available from 110 locations throughout Copenhagen — insert a 20 kroner coin to release the bike from its stand and retrieve your money when you drop it off at any other location. Driverless Metro trains operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week (airport to city centre in 10 minutes).

HULL OF A PLACE: Splendid tall sailing ships
lining the quayside behind the Admiral Hotel
STAY
The 4-star, 366-room harbourfront Admiral Hotel, 24-28 Toldbodgade (0045 33741414, www.admiralhotel.dk) occupies a former grain warehouse that was built in 1787. It’s a five-minute wander from Nyhavn and the Royal Palace and 10 minutes from The Little Mermaid, but even closer are the fabulous tall ships that line the quay just out the back. Every room is individually designed and most feature chunky wooden beams, so mind your head.

LUNCH
Peder Oxe, 11 Grabrodretorv (0045 33110077, www.pederoxe.dk). If it walks, flies or swims it’s on the menu at this charming restaurant in a renovated townhouse in one of Copenhagen’s oldest and most picturesque squares.
Cafe Granola, 5 Vaernedamsvej (0045 33250080). Serves a great brunch as well as lunch and is always busy, so you might have to wait for a table.
Bodega, 1 Kapelvej (0045 35390707, www.bodega.dk), is a cafe-cum-bar by day, a restaurant at night and a nightclub with DJ when the kitchen closes. If it wasn’t for the fact there are other places to dine and dance, you could happily spend your whole visit here.
Hotdog stands are everywhere, but the best by far is Dop (Den Okologiske Polseman — the organic hotdog man) in the shadow of the impressive Round Tower at 52A Kobmagergade. Try a pork or beef sausage in a sourdough and linseed bun or with roast beets and mashed parsnips, they’re out of this world.

BUNDERFUL: Dop sells the best hotdogs by far
DINNER
Kodbyens Fiskebar, 100 Flaesketorvet (0045 32155656, www.fiskebaren.dk), where the speciality is seafood, is my favourite Copenhagen restaurant. This is where all the cool crowd hang out, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. Owner Anders Selmer is a lovely fella and his young, charming staff who speak more than a dozen languages between them clearly love working there. It’s always busy and always a hugely enjoyable experience.
Nose2Tail, 13A Flaesketorvet (0045 33935045, www.nose2tail.dk), is a basement restaurant where waste is a dirty word — as the name suggests, every bit of the animals that appear on the menu is used. Diners sit on benches and share tables with others while tucking into a wide variety of mostly pork dishes from pigs bred and reared by boss man Martin Becker Rasmussen. A big fan of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingtsall, he subscribes to the British TV chef’s ethos that any animal that ends up on a plate must have enjoyed the highest standards of care.
Relae, 41 Jaegersborggade (0045 36966609, www.restaurant-relae.dk), was last year named Copenhagen’s best new restaurant, and quite right too. Great food in a very relaxing and informal atmosphere.
Nimb Terrasse, Tivoli Gardens (0045 88700001, www.tivoli.dk), is a French-inspired bistro where you can dine inside or out. If the weather permits, grab a table on the terrace and enjoy the sights and sounds of people enjoying Tivoli’s attractions.

KOD SUPPER: The trendy Kodbyens Fiskebar
DRINK
Hviids Vinstue and The Drop Inn as mentioned, plus late night cocktail bar Ruby (10 Nybrogade, www.rby.dk). The Hong Kong Bar (7 Nyhavn) is a dark dive and the regulars can get a bit boisterous, but it’s open 24 hours and has a jukebox with the craziest, most eclectic selection of music. For gay visitors, Oscar Bar & Cafe (77 Radhudspladsen, www.oscarbarcafe.dk) next to City Hall is a favourite.

SAVE MONEY
Buy a Copenhagen Card (www.visitcopenhagen.com) and, as the advertising slogan goes, see more and pay less. Available for 24, 72 or 120 hours, the cards allow free admission to 70 museums and other attractions including Tivoli Gardens (rides cost extra), free and unlimited use of public transport including the airport shuttle train and discounts in many shops and restaurants.