29 March 2010

Nice Copenhagen and Mild Denmark

My trip in the North finished last Wednesday, and since then I've been enjoying the comfort of home. This is the first post of several to come over the next days to better present my recent travels. Unfortunately, I have learned that Blogger.com is currently experiencing technical issues with the display of images on many of their hosted blogs, which means that you likely won't be able to see my photographs for the time being. As of today, though, staff at the organization is working to fix the system-wide problem. In the mean time, try to make due with the text, and check back in a couple days to see if the images are displaying correctly.

As mentioned in my previous posts, my northerly travels began on March 10th in Copenhagen, the capital of Denmark and the largest city in Scandinavia with about 1.2 million residents. The country lies to the north of Germany, which is actually the only nation that Denmark borders on land. Geographically speaking, Denmark consists mainly of the Jutland Peninsula, the mainland portion of the country that stretches out from the German border, and several islands of varying size to the east of Jutland. Of these islands, Zealand is the largest and home to Copenhagen, which itself is so close to Malmo, Sweden that a recent bridge and tunnel project has spanned the Oresund Strait to connect Denmark, and thereby mainland Europe, to Sweden and the rest of Scandinavia. Though an autonomous region, the disproportionately large Greenland remains under the authority of Denmark.

Aside from political meetings and global conventions, Denmark has held little power in the international arena for quite some time, but it wasn't always so. The Danish culture and society as they exist today can trace their origins to the Viking era from around 1000 AD. Like today, the Danes of that time held strong relations to their Scandinavian brethren to the north in present-day Sweden and Norway. With their fellow Scandinavians, the Danes sent out on Viking expeditions to pillage, explore, and settle. One of the many finds from their voyages would be Iceland, but that is a story for another post to come.

By the Middle Ages the Danish crown ruled over all of Scandinavia. With the breakaway of Sweden a series of wars ensued leading to the eventually recognized independence of the other country, but Norway, Iceland, and other islands in the North Atlantic remained a part of Denmark. From this glory age of Scandinavian union, in my opinion, Denmark began its slide into relative obscurity. Over the next centuries, and again from the opinion of someone who is not a professional historian, Denmark seemed to concern itself too much with its local, petty interests. Conflicts with Sweden persisted as Denmark occasionally tried with varying success to win back territory long lost. Additionally, the Danes waged war a few times with the Germans to the south over small bits of water-logged lands called Schleswig and Holstein, disputes which wouldn't be fully resolved until the 20th century. Eventually Denmark lost Norway and Iceland, and became a constitutional monarchy with an elected parliament.

Though numbering less than six million, the Danes continue to push hard to remain involved in international affairs, as the recent climate change summit in Copenhagen can attest. Closer to home, Denmark strives like the other small countries of Europe to have its voice heard among the powerhouse nations of the continent. Though a member of the European Union, Denmark has chosen like Sweden to so far stick with its own currency rather than use the euro. After arriving in the country and seeing price tags, the euro was indeed something that I missed during my travels.

My overnight train pulled into Copenhagen close to noon on Wednesday. After checking in at my hostel I spent the afternoon and evening visiting several of the city's museums, most of which were to my luck free on that day of the week. The first stop was the Royal Danish Arsenal Museum. The exhibit offered an impressive collection of artillery pieces collected from over the centuries, but was otherwise a simple look at various weapons. A view of the artillery hall is below.

The museum was located on Slotsholmen, an island in the middle of the old town that boasts several former royal buildings renovated to house many of the modern government's offices. The bridge in the following photo leads to the island and the Christiansborg Palace, where the Danish parliament meets.

From there I moved on to the National Museum, a superb display of Danish history. The exhibits provided excellent insight into the development of Danish culture from Prehistory through the Viking era and up to the year 2000 with informative displays and actual artifacts. It was here where I learned much of what I now know of Danish history.

When the museum closed at six o'clock, I walked on to another museum but first with a brief stop in the Danish Royal Library. The original brick and mortar building of the library was constructed about 100 years ago, but in 1999 an extension was built across the street and next to the harbor. This modern portion is a sleek and black granite cube that rises from the ground at an angle. A few skybridges connect the extension with the original building. Here's a look inside the atrium of the extension looking toward the harbor.

I soon arrived at the National Art Museum. Though a bit disappointed by the collection and confused by the organization of the pieces, I didn't complain any as the entrance fee was zero Danish krones.

On Thursday, my only full day actually in Copenhagen, I spent time walking the streets of the old town and visiting a couple more sites. The largely pedestrianized old town presented a mix of squares, shops, and classical architectural styles. Perhaps I have only become somewhat jaded from my European travels, but I was not overly impressed by the old town's appearance. Ugly, no, but it lacked that certain charming quality that many other great cities of Europe have delighted me with. Passing a toy store I couldn't resist going inside for only a short look at their assortment of Legos for sale; Denmark is after all the country where these internationally known plastic building blocks originated. A fresh spot in the old town was the colorful Nyhavn canal, a photo of which appears after the view of a public square.

From the canal I continued north along the harbor front. After a little time I reached the Amalienborg Palace complex, the winter home of the Danish royal family. My random arrival coincided with the daily changing of the guard ceremony. A glimpse of this pageantry is below. After the ceremony concluded, a black limousine escorted by a likewise black sedan and a police car rounded a street corner, drove onto the central square and toward the gates of the palace. I should have asked to be certain, but guessing from the excited reaction of picture-taking and hand-waving by the nearby Danes I assumed that the woman in the back of the limousine was a member of the royal family.

From the palace grounds I pushed on northwards along the harbor with a certain destination in mind. I wanted to see one of Copenhagen's best known landmarks, which curiously enough wasn't much of a true landmark at all. On some rocks cropping out from the lapping waters of the harbor rests a forlorn looking statue. The artwork depicts the main character of Danish author Hans Christian Andersen's story, "The Little Mermaid," and the inspiration for the Disney movie. Indeed, the diminutive mermaid could easily go unnoticed by passing tourists expecting something grander.

From the statue I headed back south and to the Museum of Danish Resistance. The displays at this museum tell the tales of Danish resistance against Nazi occupiers during World War II. When Germany attacked in 1940 the initial battle lasted mere hours before Denmark agreed to comply with the invaders. Germany needed Denmark as a jumping off point to reach and occupy Norway, where deep fjords could provide safe harbors and access to the North Atlantic. Over the next few years during the occupation Germany allowed Denmark to maintain self-rule but with control that grew more limited as the war dragged on. As the museum presented it, the Danish resistance seemed less than I would have expected, as mostly non-violent means were used. Unfortunately for the Danes, due to their country's position of low strategic importance from the Allies' perspective, they essentially had to wait for Germany to withdraw before being entirely free again.

From walking around the city I had developed an appetite and knew exactly where to go. Ida Davidsen is local institution in Copenhagen that offers the Danish specialty smorrebrod. The open-faced sandwiches are available from several cafes and restaurants around the city, but Ida Davidsen serves up gourmet versions that even the Danish queen is known to crave. The toppings for a smorrebrod sandwich come in endless possibilities. Simpler styles involve common items like deli meats, cheeses, tomatoes, smoked salmon, and eggs, while fancier ones can include pigeon or smoked eel. Below, photo of an old menu decorating a wall in the restaurant shows the variety. To order, one approaches the glass counter that contains several of the possible colorful selections and picks one. A fresh sandwich is then made for the customer and brought to his table. I chose a version that came with a breaded fillet of a white fish, smoked salmon, black caviar, shrimp, asparagus, and some sweet orange sauce all topping a small slice of rye bread. You can see the delicious sandwich for yourself in the second picture below.

After eating, I headed over to a community in Copenhagen called Christiania, where I had my run-in with a couple anarchistic punks. I will save this story though for a separate post to follow.

On Friday I took a day trip to a couple towns north of Copenhagen in order to visit some castles. The first stop was the city of Hillerod and its Frederiksborg Castle. This Renaissance fortification spreads itself over three islands in a large lake neighboring the city. Here is a view of it from across the water.

With construction on parts of the castle beginning in the 16th century, its walls have since then witnessed the coronation of several figures of Danish royalty. Today the rooms of the castle house the National History Museum, and in most cases are the attraction themselves. As the next two pictures show, the interior of the castle has been beautifully restored and maintained. Keep in mind one of the advantages of traveling in the low season while noticing the absence of other people in the photos.

From Hillerod I traveled to Elsinore (Hellsingor in Danish) and visited Kronborg Castle. Though I arrived too late to see the castle from the inside, I was still able to stroll around its courtyard and along its ramparts in the dreary afternoon. The last photograph shows a view of the courtyard. Kronborg Castle and Elsinore are famous for being the setting used in Shakespeare's Hamlet, in which the memorable line of, "Something is rotten in the state of Denmark," is used. Satisfied with my walk around the castle grounds, I then spent a little time in a cafe before returning to Copenhagen in the evening.

On Saturday morning I checked out from they hostel and rode a train to the airport. From this gateway I would reach the next destination of my trip, Iceland.

In the end, I found Copenhagen a nice city with a rich choice of museums and cultural attractions, but the it did not win me over entirely. It was a good city to visit, but it doesn't leave me with the desire to return. Not that I'd refuse to go back for a second visit, but the first seemed to suffice. "Good, but not more," seemed to be the theme of my stay in Denmark, naturally with some of the exceptions noted above. Of course, my experience in seedy Christiania could have affected my impression of Copenhagen. To find out why, stay tuned for the next post.


Natalie said...

1. Yay yay yay for pictures! Okay, I think you take the most amazing digital camera pictures! The one of the square is a perfect desktop wallpaper, you know.
2. I LOVE that mermaid statue. Looks so peaceful.
3. That "sandwich" is out of control. I want it. Right now.
4. You went to Elsinore! Andrew would die.

(Oh and the pictures are working now, obviously)

Nick O. said...

Natalie: Thank you! I'm glad that you like my photos, and to know that they're working properly. And yes, the sandwich was delicious, even if it wasn't really a sandwich at all.