Saturday, 2008-10-25

Catching a 6h30 flight from Geneva means waking up at 3h00, catching a taxi at 4h20, taking the 4h35 train from Morges, and leaving Switzerland entirely before the sun has risen. My flight to Copenhagen almost turned into a trial when a fat man plunked down into the seat next to me, and informed me in woeful French that he was drunk, Lithuanian, and would like to engage in sixty-nine with the stewardess. Thankfully he quickly passed out and I was left to read my quantum mechanics book in peace.

Arriving in Copenhagen is a pleasure, for several reasons. Everyone speaks English, and the few that don’t tell you so in flawless English then try their best to help you in Danish. The public transit is as smooth as Switzerland. The pastry is good. The Danes are among the friendliest people in Europe, and will gladly offer assistance. I had not been on the ground ten minutes before a young policewoman asked if she could help me, and gave me a lovely smile and careful instructions on the fastest way to get to København H, the main train station, from the airport.

København H is on the southern side of the old Medieval city, just south of the Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen’s landmark amusement park. I had reserved a room at the Cab-Inn City hotel just east of Tivoli. The rooms are Spartan, clean, and quiet, somewhat modeled after cabins aboard ship, but very comfortable. I paid for my room, left my bag, and went to find breakfast. A walk north into stone streets of the shopping district, a couple of pastries from a bakery there, and the walk back took the remaining time until my friends Hans and Birte were to call for me at 10h00.

Hans has a taste for the city’s history, and obliged me giving me an overview of how it spread across its land, building some of it in the process. At the center of this growth is the palace of Christiansborgslot, the probable inspiration for the castle in the swamp in Monty Python and the Holy Grail: “Other kings said I was daft to build a castle on a swamp, but I built it all the same, just to show ’em! It sank into the swamp, so I built a second one. That sank into the swamp. I built a third one. It burned down, fell over, and then it sank into the swamp. But the fourth one stayed up!”

Biship Absalon built the first castle in the sleepy fishing village of Havn in 1167. Conquerors from Hamburg tore it down two hundred years later. They built a second one, and it lasted with many additions until the mid-19th century, when it burned. They built a third one, and at the beginning of the 20th century, it burned two. So they built a fourth one, and this time told the fire department where it was.

The ruined foundations of the first two castles, beneath the courtyards of the current one, are open to the public, and to these Hans led us. They were fascinating, but the most shocking thing for an American was the total lack of security. This palace houses the supreme court, the parliament, and one of the many apartments of the royalty. It’s completely open, day and night, without a guard in sight. Anyone who wants can walk through at any time.

Our next venture was to ascend the tower of the Rathuus, the town hall. We fortified ourselves with coffee and cookies at a stand in the Ratuusplatz, then went up with the tour that leaves at noon everyday. Copenhagen is astonishingly beautiful seen from above, either from the Rathuus tower or the Round Tower elsewhere in the old city. The city is mostly stone with tile roofs, very uniform in height, and where it reaches the sea there springs up a line of white wind turbines, turning in the breeze.

For those familiar with cities like Bologna it seems strange that Copenhagen did not line all its streets with arcades, but the architecture has one essential characteristic: it looks and feels the same in all weather, in snow, in rain, and in sunshine, a necessary characteristic if its inhabitants aren’t to go mad in the course of the winter.

Birte had to leave us, and Hans and I walked east past the royal library and over a bridge into Christianshavn, the Dutch quarter, for lunch. Dutch settlers were invited in several hundred years ago, and built their own land in the manner of their country, complete with boat-lined canals. After lunch Hans pointed me in the direction of the naval museum and left me to my own devices.

Two grizzled sailors sold me a ticket, and pointed me upstairs into a truly spectacular museum. They had a special exhibition on the British terror bombing of the city in 1807 which I enjoyed, but the core of the museum is an enormous collection of historical models of men-o-war, frigates and ship of the line of the 18th and 19th centuries, a Venetian galleon, endless, marvelous, intricate models. And the museum was almost empty!

Three hours later I emerged and took a walk along the canal and then the harbor. On the harbor was a boat dressed to look like a monster, with a great opening mouth at the front. It slid along the opposite shore, broadcasting roars over a loudspeaker, and opening its mouth to let someone inside throw buckets of water at people on the quay.

As the boat would indicate, Copenhagen has a slightly quirky sense of humor, and a healthy street performer culture. A street musician had drawn a large crowd as I walked back from Christianshavn. I ran into two accordion players, one slashing his way through Bach’s Italian concerto (a feat impressive enough on the accordion that I gave him five kroner). Later in the Rathuus square I saw two people with moccasins, long, feathered headdresses, and appropriate costume inbetween doing some imitation of an of American Indian dance while playing recorders with new-age electronic music in the background. They also had gathered a crowd, though a somewhat puzzled one.

I rested in my room for a while before going in search of dinner. I wandered through the old streets, and then I found a used book sale in a church. A Danish used book sale. I couldn’t even read the word ‘used book sale’ on the sign, but it was plain to my finely honed senses what it was. And I bought two books. In my defense, they were only five kroner a piece, and they were in English. Then I settled down to finding dinner, and ended up eating at a Turkish buffet which wasn’t good enough to recommend. After dinner, went back to my room and read my new books before falling asleep.

Sunday, 2008-10-26

It rained today. It rained dismally all day, with never a glimpse of the sun. My morning walk in search of pastries left me with wet pants and soaked shoes, and at last I caved to the inevitable and bought pastries from the 7-11, the only thing open on a Sunday morning. I went back to my room and read until my clothes dried.

However, I am an early riser, and this delayed me only until 10h00, when I braved the rain again to go to the National Museum (Nationalmuseet). It’s half art gallery, half history museum, free to all, and very well curated. My visit encompassed the prehistory exhibit, from the first humans in the heavy woods of early Denmark through the Iron Age and the viking ships.

The Danes continued to work in stone quite late, and with such consummate skill that it competed with bronze worked elsewhere in Europe. Bronze took over at the high end first, in the swords of important men, but those same men carried stone daggers from a long time to come. Then came iron, and beautifully worked swords. Unfortunately, I only saw one partial relic of a viking ship.

After gazing my fill on the handiwork of long dead savages, I turned my thoughts to lunch. The museum has a Sunday brunch buffet in the atrium which looked lovely, but which was completely full. I had to face the rain to find my lunch.

I finally realized that in Copenhagen, a café is not just a place you go for a coffee and a pastry, though it serves that purpose as well. It fills the roll of a diner or casual restaurant as well. Otherwise all restaurants are either ethnic cuisine or expensive. And in the cafés, particularly if they are busy, you order at the counter and often pay at the same time, then sit down to eat. They will generally bring you your food, though you will often be handed your beverage on the spot.

As eccentric as this seems to someone living in southern Europe, it seems to work very well. I found a lovely café, the floorboards of its entrance covered in water and great tubs of towels by the door, with enormous windows onto the street downstairs, and a cozy atmosphere, tables pulled up against long window seats with pillows, upstairs.

Café Norden
Østergade 61
1100 København K
Tel. 33 11 77 91

I ordered their brunch, somewhat pricey at Kr.160, but an enormous amount of food: hot chocolate with cream, orange juice, a pancake with syrup, two kinds of bread, sausage, ham, two kinds of cheese, fruit, and a piece of the sweet of the day, a lovely seed cake. I also had the amusing experience of translating the Danish menu into Italian for a couple who sat down next to me —two of the many, many Italian tourists I saw in the city— amusing mostly because I don’t speak a word of Danish. They were charmed to find someone who spoke Italian, and we talked for a bit before I wished them good day and set off for the Glyptotek.

The Glyptotek is all art museum, and free on Sundays, oh balm to my Scots soul. I left my coat hanging downstairs and headed into the Egyptian galleries. But before I pursue the wonders of ancient Egypt, a word about coats is in order. There is no coat check, anywhere. There are racks, and you hang up your coat and umbrella with everyone else and leave it there. And it is there when you get back. I can’t imagine trying to do the same thing in a major museum in Paris or New York.

The Glyptotek has a collection of modern French sculpture, but what everyone goes to see is their grand collection of Egyptian and classical art. The Egyptian collection was the project of one man, and probably the finest in Europe outside of England. The Danes, unlike the English, asked the Egyptians what they could buy. In the end, they were allowed to buy general items; anything unique had to be left for the English to steal.

The basement is filled with a walkthrough of the development of civilization around the northern and eastern Mediterranean, with decent but not outstanding art, chosen to show the development of the cultures. The best of the classical sculpture is all upstairs.

The most interesting of the classical sculpture to my mind was the collection of heads of Roman emperors. A lot of history is written in those faces: hard paranoia on the face of Claudius and poison in his wife’s eyes; Augustus’s proud, hard face, a series of weak or insane emporers including a Nero I wouldn’t have allowed in my home; and most astonishing of all a couple of busts of Marcus Aurelius, a intelligent, care worn face, and along with the bust of his wife, the only ones in the series with real humanity.

This carried me through to the museum’s closing time, and I returned to the hotel to read until dinner time. For dinner, I headed farther afield than the night before, and finally settled on a place called Amadeus, a basement restaurant, classy and full of candles as the Danish like it.

St. Kongensgade 62
1264 København K
Tel. 33 32 5 11

I was in the mood for plain fare, and they fed me a well made hamburger. But their desserts are wonderful. Only one other table was occupied that night, so the waitress, an extremely cute brunette, took some time discussing the sweets with me. Finally I settled on a tarte tatin, served piping hot with a wedge of semifreddo of cinnamon and pear sandwiched between pastry dough.

During this consultation, we hit a translation problem, a surprise as her English was without accent (she had lived five years in New York City, she told me when I complimented her on it). The guilty word: ‘rhubarb.’ It is an indication of the facility of the Danes with English that my rate of word troubles was one a day: on Saturday, Hans and I got stuck on the verb ‘to till.’

I finished my dessert, and had one more request for the young lady. I hadn’t seen sun nor stars all day, and I don’t carry a compass, so I was navigating completely by dead reckoning. I had her point out my exact position on the map, and to my surprise I was only a hundred meters southwest of where I thought I was. She, on the other hand, was quite concerned and confirmed carefully that I wasn’t lost.

I was not lost, and navigated with pause to my hotel, where I read a bit more before bed.

Monday 2008-10-27

My flight back to Geneva left at 9h00, so I woke at 7h00, paid 50 krøner to breakfast in the hotel (not worth it), then walked to København H to catch a train to the airport. This was rush hour on Monday morning. At the main stations of New York, of Paris, of Washington DC, you would see nothing but hurry and stress. In Copenhagen, the station was crowded, but not one person stressed or hurried did I see.

Indeed, my whole impression of the city is, “here is a place I could put down roots.” I don’t mean identity, though the Danes have that in spades —their own history, literature, and their language such a dominant force in the region that the Norwegians write in an archaic form of Danish— but a place to act as a personal center for the world, a commons for which you take responsibility.

I took one of the intercity trains to the airport. The Danish intercities are the only trains in Europe I’ve seen that match the Swiss ICN’s for luxury. And my karma was paid back on the plane: I got a row to myself, and a gorgeous view of the green countryside and sunlight on grey sea as we took off.

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