I may as well write it: wonderful, wonderful Copenhagen, it really is. It’s way out east on the Danish archipelago, at the eastern tip of Zealand, glowering across the Oresund strait at Malmo. Sweden and Denmark have their issues, always have. So close to identity in race and language, in history and culture that surely they should be one. It is not so, that narrow stretch of Baltic is an uncanny valley dividing the twain. You can take a trip to Sweden by train, twenty minutes or so, we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.
Copenhagen is formed by the sea, its lifeblood the water that flows through it. The Inderhavn snakes through the centre. At the northern end, the tiny figure of the Little Mermaid watches over the harbour. Hans Christian Anderson’s character seems oblivious to the sea, looking slightly stranded on a rock close to the shore. She is a most modest icon for a large city. Yet it encapsulates a larger story in its tiny form. She was a mermaid who rescued a drowning man, aren’t we all, but her pursuit of love was her tragic demise. The statue, erected by Carl Jacobsen of Carlsberg fame, has been decapitated and defaced many times, but survives. The smallest landmark of a major city, and the toughest, probably.
Copenhagen excites the fairy tale within. Slender spires touch the eggshell sky, gargoyles gambol on parapets, turrets host damsels awaiting deliverance. To walk through its streets is to court heroics, to become part of storyville. But it’s no Disneyland, wide streets turn to traffic canyons, commerce blares in all its seedy attractions. The city in parts can grow shabby with age and overuse. The ambition of an enhanced metro line is also disruptive. At times you get the feeling of a city with a glorious ruined past, hosting a modern, bustling parasite. It will be fine when it’s finished, if ever.
Olden oases persist. Age and beauty are respected. Stepping off the treadmill we take a boat tour from Nyhavn. This canal was built in the 17th century to enable ships sail into the centre of Copenhagen. Once a notorious red light district now it’s more up-market, but Nyhavn is still a sprinkling of the old salt. Gable fronted houses teeter on the pier, drinkers and diners carousing with gusto at quayside bars and stalls. There are different strata in the society of drinkers but they gel very well. Prices are prohibitively expensive so follow the local habit of buying cheap take aways and socialising around a fountain or on the banks of a canal.
There are hints of old Amsterdam. Across the Inderhavn, Christianshavn is formed around quiet canals, treelined streets carry cyclists and pedestrians, many commute by water. Bars cling to barges where punters watch the world float by. At times I am reminded of the Grand Canal back home, or what it could be.
The area merges with Christiania. The old disused army barracks was garrisoned by hippies in the late sixties and the culture persists. Dire warnings of drug crazed weirdos and overflowing garbage are wide of the mark. If anything, Christiania is cleaner than the city that surrounds it. You’ll see the stoner, early morning drinker and layabout, but enough about me, this is a quirky and fun exemplar of alternative living. The sun beams down on individualistic housing, creativity peeks through everywhere, smiling people crowd the cafes, the smell of new mown grass wafts through. On the main drag, the green light district, the mission statement is proclaimed in posters. No hard drugs or weapons, no cars or photos (oops, no-one told me). Meanwhile residents and visitors mingle, happy as hash and tobacco.
Back in the EU the world cycles on. We return across the Inderhavn to the city centre. The Stroget is a serpentine walkway through Copenhagen’s medieval heart. Thronged with strollers, lined with hostelries and shops, it seems all Copenhagen is here for the evening, anticipating the nighttime revelry. At the southern end is Radhuspladzen, dominated by the City Hall, This early twentieth century structure echoes Nordic medieval architecture, topped off by a 100 metre clock tower. The square itself is, typically I’m afraid, a cordoned off building site. Those Danes keep digging.
Night falls and the rare Baltic heat persists. The Tivoli Gardens are a step back in time and a step off the urban treadmill. Fun park, theme park, palace of recreation, it was opened in 1843 and its popularity continues to grow. The sculpted parkland is woven into an amusement park with a plethora of death defying, fantastical rides. There are restaurants, bars, concert halls and theatres, conceived in architectural styles from around the globe. As the illuminations come on it is transformed into a true wonderland.
Fortified on Danish courage, we seek the most spectacular ride. The chair-o-plane ascends to ridiculous heights. In the cooling night air we are side by side, flying above the fairytale towers, lit by magic lanterns. The stars swirl in harmony, the two of us turn to angel dust.