THE FIRST THING you notice about Copenhagen, perched on the westernmost tip of Denmark, a -long-stone’s throw from Sweden, is that the pace is different. It’s not that people are any less hurried. It is after all, a major European capital. It’s just that the hurrying people are hurrying on bicycles, many of which propel large boxy containers of grinning kids on their way to school. The bicycles all seem (to my inexperienced eyes) to be solid, practical, usually well-worn vehicles. There seems to be little, if any, flash to the morning’s dash.
And it all seems spectacularly safe: the cycle lanes are wide, clearly marked, raised surfaces that, with typical Danish friendliness, suggest to passing cars they can just piss off…thank you very much. Here bikes rule. Their whirring wheels dictate the rules of the road and the rhythm of the city.
I’ve been to many bike-dense cities: Delhi, Shanghai, Pnom Penh etc. But there’s a frenzy to the rhythm of the bikes there, where every road-crossing venture feels like a challenge to chaos and an open invitation to broken limbs and cracked heads. Not so here. The pace is tempered by a sense of calm and order. People wait for the lights to change before crossing. Only we dumb tourists made so bold as to ignore the politely waiting natives and scamper across empty streets.
Perhaps because it was April and already the long winter hibernation was easing into days that stretched well into the night, everyone was cheerful. Or perhaps that was just my cynical take on a city that simply feels at ease with itself. Denmark is supposed to be the happiest place on earth, despite the cold, despite the long darkness of winter, despite the high taxes. And it feels like it. People weren’t simply polite, they were jolly. In flawless, unaccented English. The bartenders always brought us our chilled wine with warm cheer. So this is what “hygge” feels like! Once, as we sat sipping said wine, we saw a row of carefully balanced bikes clatter to the ground, blown over by a sudden gust of wind. Tough shit? No. Two men passing by stopped, picked them up, carefully steadied them and moved on. Huh? Did we just see that? It’s as though the immediate stop to help is part of Danish muscle memory.
A beautiful city with great food, stunning architecture and…Danes. This must be some sort of high point of what it means to be civilized (or maybe just a clever veneer to mask a well hidden dark side…the side we all know so well from “The Killing”)
Said “beautiful city” is a compact one, easily accessed by the many stops of the S trains (which travel mainly overland) and the Metro (A three day tourist pass costs about £25…nothing’s cheap here; though in five days we were never asked to show our tickets). It is a cultured quilt of contrasting neighborhood characters…from the bucolic residential wealth of Frederiksberg in the east, with its graceful, water-laced heron-rich parks to the bustling, curving cobbled streets of shopper bound, tourist crowded City in the center, to the dark silences of black, blank, secret, private banking Christianhavn in the west, to the youthful vibrancy of Vesterbro in the south.
The way to experience all this is by foot (after all, Stroget is the longest pedestrianized shopping street in Europe… though really not worth the visit). Copenhagen is a delightfully eclectic blend of dark seventeenth century North Renaissance architecture, churches with minaret-high towers, idiosyncratic structures (Borsen, the stock exchange is topped by a sky-piercing tower comprised of the plaited tails of four roaring dragons. Kalessi, where are you?)
reclaimed (and trendified) warehouses with their bearded baristas and cute wine bars; tall, genteel, ornament-free eighteenth century burgher’s homes (the unshowey restraint of the Lutheran sensibility is evident even in the Royal palaces) and pockets of strikingly modern architecture. Though Denmark (when it was twinned with Norway) had scattered colonial outposts, the feel of the city lacks the imperial, slave-funded pomp of places like Brussels.
There are parks – and flower shops- everywhere (all of which have their own extensive lake-large ponds) and the entire place, threaded by a network of waterways, is embraced by two wide canals. Some parts -Kastellet, a seventeenth century star shaped fortress surrounded by a moat, the administrative center, Christianborg Slot, and just to the West, Christianshavn – are themselves islands within the city itself. They’re all brushed by the wakes of laden sightseeing boats and monied yachts whose slow flow down the cold canals fed from the Baltic Sea, lend the city a mood of unhurried leisure. Relax. You move too fast. Gotta make the moment last.
In a world bent on building walls, here is a city of bridges.
(Indeed, just by chance, while waiting on the famous Tivoli gardens – one of the world’s most kitsch of places – to open, we wandered into the Town Hall. There, there was an exhibition of “refugee voices”: a hundred refugees were photographed and their stories documented. The exhibition offered viewers synopses of the disasters – wars, persecution, famine – from which they’d fled. Here was a city boasting of and celebrating its moral role in the acceptance of refugees. In a world of Trump, May and LePen, such sentiment seems quaint…unthinkable!)
And if all this isn’t enough, go for the new Danish cuisine (smorrebrod is sooo out!): new flavor combinations of fresh locally sourced ingredients whipped into impossibly light concoctions and topped with a drizzle of greenery that actually add taste and depth instead of a mere flourish of color. These places are expensive. Much cheaper are the bustling, buzzy, food halls and food markets, where pretty much anything from tapas to pizza to sushi (those Danish staples) to, yes, smorrebrod, are, like the wine and beer, readily on tap.
(Or, if drugs are your thing, you can groove on across the Torvegade bridge to the free state of Christiania, a hippy-esque hang out where marijuana dealers openly, and legally, solicit your custom)
So is it the food…or the drugs that make the Danes (and Copenhagen itself was voted happiest city in the world) so damned happy? According to the (no doubt, Marxist) Danes, it’s their welfare state. They’ve made the astonishing link between paying (lots of) taxes and getting in return -free- top notch education, health care, roads, public art, parks and social care. Brilliant. No wonder Neil’s Bohr (who, with Einstein, pretty much invented quantum physics) was Danish.
Now let’s hope the presence of refugees in their midst doesn’t bring to light the hidden right of Danish noir.
Where we ate and drank (and would recommend):
Spisehuset: it’s a small, intimate restaurant run by the bearded chef/owner and two others. A very friendly place, located in an obscure alley in the old side of the Meatpacking area (Kodbyen). There’s a price fixe menu (300k)…everything’s good. But the desert was just this side of heaven.
Slagtehusgade 5C, Kobenhaven V
Host. A converted many layered corner house; reclaimed timber and eager, super helpful staff. Prixe Fixe (300k or 450k). Features an extraordinary artichoke froth topped with caviar.
Norre Farimagsgade 41.
Brod. Reputed (deservedly) for offering the best (fresh from the oven, delicately, crumblingly delicious) Danish pastries. An absolute breakfast must. Open from 7
Enghave Pl 7
Kanalens. Here there’s a choice between prixe fixe (400k) or a la carte. Superb food and service and an outstanding location (on Christiania) on a finger of water opposite a lovely, moored schooner.
Wilder Plads 2
(This area – Christiania- boasts a number of great looking restaurants: cafe Wilder -where we had excellent Cosmos- is at Wildersgade 56 and just opposite, Sankt Annae 8)
The food markets at Papioren (Paper Island on Christianshavn) and off Norreport S station are “must go” places. Share a table or a counter and join the happy fellow eaters.
Granola is by day a breakfast place that, magically transforms itself into a cosy cocktail lounge, offering a tempting range of cocktails.
Vaernedamsvej 5, Frederiksberg
Jo-Jo’s Social: good for a quick mid morning break for bubbly. Landemaerket 7, Kobenhaven C
Stemple: in Vesterbro, if you happen to be staying in this trendy district. Airy, relaxed and friendly
Enghave Pl 2