Scandinavian Adventures: Copenhagen and Zealand

Copenhagen, the guidebooks say, is packed with museums and historic buildings. Brochures show pictures of charming storefronts and cafes fronting a canal. Tourism literature uses words like “eclectic” and “funky” to describe parts of the city. And in the middle sits an old-timey amusement park, something like Coney Island in its heyday.

All these things are true, after a fashion. But there is a lot left unsaid.

Copenhagen is a real, vibrant city, not a fairy-tale land of history, architecture, and clean streets. It is packed with cars, construction, dirty back alleys, and even (in spite of a massive social safety net) street beggars. Which is not to say I hated it — I loved it. But I had to wildly shift my expectations.

After the whirlwind museum tour of Frankfurt, we were content to just spend some time wandering in Copenhagen without a clear itinerary. Given the sheer density of old buildings, squares, fountains, churches, and other interesting architecture, not to mention canals, this worked out rather well. We also worried a bit less about “authentic” local cuisine — our first meal was shawarma, our last meal with steak, and in between we did try the local street hot dogs (not very good).

In terms of Copenhagen things done:

  • Canal tour – So-so, it mostly served as a chance to doze.
  • Tivoli Gardens – one of the oldest amusement parks in the world, Tivoli lived up to its billing and was actually quite an enjoyable time. Things to see, churros to eat, roller coasters, bumper cars, swing dance (we did not participate) and interesting typography abounded.
  • Christiana – This artist commune (or something?) had a strict “yes pot, no photos” policy, was full of a lot of scruffy-looking people, stray dogs, guitars, and beer. I expected something less grungy and more hippy; we didn’t stay long.
  • Sandcastles – Oh gosh yes. This summer’s theme for the exhibition was the history of man, and the sand artists of various nationalities were certainly creative in their interpretation.

All this in photo form using the link at the bottom.

One of the guides I read said that tipping of wait staff in Copenhagen is unnecessary, and once you experience the service you won’t want to anyway. That advice was spot-on. Never before have I had a quick stop in a cafe for some tea and pastry taken almost an hour and a half.

We spent as much time outside of Copenhagen as in it, although we confined our adventures to the Zealand region (sort of the “greater Copenhagen area) to maximize our limited time. This included a train trip north to Kronborg Castle in Helsingør, the setting for Shakespeare’s Hamlet and for a time Denmark’s most important fortification. The castle is situated to control the Sound and allowed Denmark to tax all ships trading there, including those bound for Sweden. As you can guess, this didn’t go over well for the Swedes, but then the two countries were arch-enemies for centuries.

The castle was an impressive sight and a very interesting experience. Co-located there is a naval museum containing far more model ships than anyone really needs to see, as well as a tower with a great view of the surrounding city and Sweden across the water.

We also stopped in at the Louisiana, a well-regarded modern art museum located along the coast in an otherwise sleepy town. An interesting piece of architecture with low-slung buildings and beautiful gardens, the Louisiana also contains a museum shop filled with wonders and was featuring an exhibit on “new Nordic architecture and identity”.

We learned the difference between “Scandinavian” (incorporating Denmark, Sweden, and Norway), and “Nordic” (which also includes Greenland, Iceland, Finland, and various smaller islands and territories). All of these countries share deep cultural and social links, but also a long history of mutual aggression and occasional conquest. The exhibit explored how art and architecture both highlight cultural differences and serve to bring people together. It also asked difficult questions about how globalization and homogenization clashes with identity rooted in a sense of place.

On the whole I found the modern Nordic architecture quite compelling, and an excellent counterpoint to much of the design one sees in the US today. I wish we had more time to explore this museum, but despite the sun being out past 10pm, most things don’t stay open much later than 6.

Our second excursion was to the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde. Kevin and I both really wanted to try and swing this, and while it meant giving up more time in Copenhagen, it was well worth the travel. Sadly we did not arrive early enough to reserve a spot sailing (and rowing) on a reconstructed Viking ship, but we did have plenty of time to explore the museum and grounds. Half a dozen reconstructed ships in various styles sit in the bay, one of which we were allowed to climb on and explore (mind the pine tar, it stains clothing!). There were also stations with information and demonstrations on various aspects of Viking ship construction, including rope making, sail weaving, wood carving, and smithing.

The sheer quantity of human effort that went into building these imposing vessels is astounding. While the Vikings had iron, looms, and a heck of a lot of expertise, they lacked such implements as saws and drills. Which meant that each tree had to be felled by axe, laboriously chopped, carved, and chiseled. Every nail had to be hand-forged, one at a time, after mining and purifying the iron ore, of course. And every strand of rope had to be harvested, peeled, washed, dried, beaten, woven…

The museum proper was built to house the discovered remains of five ships scuttled in the Roskilde fjord in the 11th century to block a channel against approaching invaders. The ships were raised 50 years ago and the fragments reconstructed. It is amazing to view ships over a thousand years old and read about the (believed) customs and traditions of the Vikings of that era.

Following our Viking adventures we visited a nearby restaurant on a mission to get in one good meal of thoroughly Danish fare. In the spirit of Scandinavian adventure, I ordered the “Five Ships Platter,” which consisted of herring, chicken salad, smoked salmon, spelt salad, cheese, and a small glass of mead.

My lunch

Kevin will confirm that I tried every item. As to which I finished, well…

Our brief Denmark trip an overwhelming success, we are off to our next destination, across the water: Sweden!

One Comment

  1. I enjoy your pithy commentary.
    If Rick Steves ever retires, I would nominate you to take his place.
    Keep on blogging.
    Sounds like an excellent adventure!

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