Finally! It was time for Kay and me to feel what it was like to spend a few days in what some claim is the most livable and happiest city on the planet. July was a perfect time to fly north and escape Istanbul’s summer heat and humidity.
As we debarked into Copenhagen’s airport, I was all eyes and ears. Do the happiest people in the world look outwardly different from the rest of us? Maybe not. But maybe courtesy and thoughtfulness are signature traits of happy people. We certainly found these on display at the counter of the airport tourist office where we bought our five-day Copenhagen cards that gave us passes on all public transportation and admission to every museum we visited. And we found them again when we checked into the central city’s Absalon Hotel. Preliminaries accomplished, the receptionist left her post to personally escort us to our room, making sure we knew how to use our key cards to run the elevator.
We learned that the Absalon is named after the 12th-century archbishop and statesman who, among other claims to fame, commissioned the original fortifications around the settlement that became Copenhagen. His gilded likeness is featured in a large relief high up on the façade of the City Hall.
One perk of our stay at the Absalon was helping ourselves to the selection of sugar cookies and candies that we found always replenished on our floor by the elevator.
Another was the lobby bar that on two occasions was the venue for a live jazz band led by a baritone saxophonist. Denmark is known for its love of jazz, and our visit coincided with an annual jazz festival. How great it was to come down from our room, order drinks from the barman, and sit, enjoying the fine music.
The art museum known as Louisiana is located some twenty kilometers north of town on what was once a large estate. In the 19th century, the estate’s owner had three successive wives, each named Louise. In their honor, he named his country home Louisiana.
A visit was our first priority; we went there the morning after our arrival. Stashing our packs and jackets in a locker, we began to explore what is one of Europe’s famed museums. Architecturally, it is a low-rise suite of galleries, some under ground. There are long corridors with window walls that let us see different parts of the lovely natural setting. Among the trees and plantings there are sculptures. At one point we glimpsed the eponymous 19th-century country house.
We stayed for only three hours. At a certain point, my recovery from back surgery required that I sit, so we headed for the large museum café where it seemed that everyone in the museum had gathered. Luckily, we found seats for two, and I held the table while Kay went for food.
While I waited for Kay’s return, I had plenty of time to check out the people and the foods they were eating. Some had chosen dishes from the smorgasbord located in a separate room. Interested in exploring this Danish eating tradition, I learned that the word I had always thought of as meaning a glorified buffet actually means an open-faced sandwich. (By the way, the word in Danish is written smorrebrod.) There was a buffet involved, however, in that customers, in self-service fashion, compose their sandwiches from ingredients set out on a buffet table. These fresh and tasty open-faced sandwiches are offered all over town and are, for me, one of the country’s most appealing menu items.
Just beyond the windows of the café is a large lawn with three works by Calder, two sculptures and a mobile. Beyond the lawn is a line of dark trees. In another direction there is the sea. It’s a striking vista. I walked out and realized that beyond what we could see from the café, the lawn continues steeply downward to a lower level. It is quite large. Even sprinkled with rain, there were people wandering everywhere.
During our short visit we concentrated on viewing the works of the museum’s permanent collection that are installed on a rotating basis. These delighted us. All are examples of modern and contemporary art. Impressive, were large-scale photos by Thomas Struth.
One gallery contained an enormous painting by David Hockney entitled A Closer Grand Canyon. It is a recognizable but stylized view of the canyon composed of sixty rectangular panels that together form the entire painting. The artist’s idea is that just as one needs to view the canyon in person by concentrating on its individual parts, so the painting needs to be studied in the same way. The overall work is so large and colorful that it is dazzling.
Besides the Americans, British and Germans represented, we looked at a number of works by Danish artists. Per Kirkbey is the most widely represented with smaller abstracts as well as a very large canvas entitled End of the World.
Among the pop art, both Kay and I were struck by a large, early painting (not a silk screen) by Andy Warhol of a matchbook cover advertising Coca Cola. Realistic in every detail, the words Close Cover Before Striking serve as the title of the work. The details are so sharply drawn and even include marks on the black strip that show where matches had been struck.
One of the smaller galleries contained photographic portraits of artists done by several photographers. Andre Ostier’s works are of Matisse, Picasso, Chagall, Warhol, Miro, Magritte and Hockney.
Both of us wished we could see more of the museum’s many beautiful grounds, but we realized that we needed to get back to town and rest before going to dinner that evening.
A Meal to Remember
It seems the Vesterbro district where we were staying is the place to be for fine bars and restaurants. We asked for a dinner recommendation, and the young man at reception made a reservation for us at nearby CoFoco, specializing in New Nordic cuisine. It turned out to be really something.
Crowded when we arrived, we joined other diners seated on high chairs at light wooden tables. The décor was very simple. The only art on the walls were several reproductions of Bauhaus posters advertising a 1921 exhibition.
The descriptions of the bill of fare were intriguing. We chose a five-course menu that began with Halibut Ceviche surrounded by drops of yoghurt and small pieces of green tomatoes and topped with a sauce and kernels of puffed wild rice.
A waiter explained each dish a he presented it in sequence. The waiters were all young, male and very well trained. They were uniformly dressed in white t-shirts with narrow suspenders.
Following the ceviche came a bowl of mussel soup. The bowls, as they arrived, contained a mélange of brown crab, pea puree, fresh whole peas flavored with mint oil, and croutons. Once he had given us these details, our waiter poured a flavored broth over the dry ingredients to make the soup. I had not ever seen soup presented this way before.
Our third dish was of Danish new potatoes topped with a smoked and creamy cheese sauce. There were strands of pickled onions and a scattering of cress and a local, garlicky herb called ransome.
Each dish contained distinct flavors and textures. It was phenomenal.
Fourth, following a break, came a breast of cockerel (a young male chicken) again with melted cheese mixed with three kinds of chopped green beans, bits of cabbage and a sauce of chicken broth. Like each dish, this was rich and I was getting to the point where I couldn’t eat any more. Nevertheless, I finished it.
The final dish, after another short break, was a ball of raspberry ice cream set over a honeycomb with a liquorice flavor and surrounded with tiny pieces of white chocolate. It was all a bit too much, and although I knew I had experienced something very special, I walked back to the hotel feeling overly sated.
A Canal Tour
On day two, the sun shone and we were able to see a bit of the city. One surprise was the variety and interest of Copenhagen’s architecture. We walked down main thoroughfares to get to the slip where we could board a boat for a one-hour trip through the city’s canals.
On the way, we walked through squares with fountains and past the city’s enormous Radhus or town hall. As we entered the city center we were surprised at the number and variety of the tourists. The streets and squares were really crowded. Of course, a number of buskers were plying their trade.
At one point we heard a really excellent five-piece band that included a man powerfully blowing a soprano saxophone that made us think of Sydney Bechet.
The canal cruise was pleasant and informative. The young woman guide gave her talk in English, Danish, and Italian. She spoke quickly with great fluency and fine pronunciation. We were impressed.
We saw some very fine buildings from the waterside that we would like to visit from land. These included the opera house, a large theater, Maersk Line’s headquarters, and many others.
Copenhagen is a bicycle city the likes of which amaze me. There seem to be bike paths everywhere, and they are in constant use. In our walks we’ve passed spots with hundreds of parked bicycles.
Of the cyclists we’ve seen, almost none wear helmets. Bicycles seem to be the transportation of choice of thousands of the city’s inhabitants. I would love to have joined them, but that will have to await a future visit.
Day three began with us improvising. We left the hotel after 10 a.m., walking to what we had heard referred to as Glyptotek. We really had no idea that the Glyptotek is a large museum devoted mostly to sculpture. (The word, with no English equivalent, is from a Greek root, combining the ideas of sculpture and history.) Carl Jacobsen, the son of the founder of Carlsberg Brewery, commissioned it around the turn of the 20th century. He was quite the collector and it was his private collection that forms the core of the museum.
In a series of galleries on three floors surrounding a large atrium, we wandered among captivating groups of sculptures ranging from the antique to the work of Danish and French sculptors of the 19th century.
What we thought would be a short visit before moving on to other attractions became the day’s main event. We found lunch in the lovely museum café where we enjoyed open-faced sandwiches of chicken salad topped with mushrooms and strips of bacon. After a stimulating half-hour in the museum’s shop and bookstore, we headed back to the hotel to rest and reflect on all we had just seen and experienced.
There are revelers in Copenhagen who seem to stay up all night. We hear them outside our window, making so much noise that we have to shut it. Perhaps this is due to the fact that it doesn’t really get dark at this time of year. Even after the sun sets, the sky remains light.
On our last full day in Copenhagen before moving on to the Baltic city of Gdansk in Poland where we would attend the annual conference of our literary society, we joined a one-hour tour of Radhus or City Hall, a colossal fin-de-siècle wonder designed by Martin Nyrop, a progressive architect, who managed to get his design built in the face of the reigning architectural establishment that favored the columns and pediments of neo-classical facades.
He was lucky in that both the city council and the general public liked his design. Despite that, the project became so expensive that public funds ran out and the building had to be finished by private subscription.
It’s hard to characterize City Hall in terms of a single style. In fact, Nyrop mixed styles, blending elements of Gothic, Italian, and others. A guide to City Hall that I purchased claims that the architect “gave expression to a national Danish style, one might almost call it national romanticism.”
What is evident from touring the building and from its written descriptions is that Nyrop took great pains with the details and decorations. He demanded the best from the artisans who worked under him, and they were happy to oblige since they were given the materials and allowed to take the time to do their very best work. This amount of care took its toll. It had been thirteen years under construction by the time it was finally inaugurated in 1905.
Today, city hall looks very much as it did then. Nearly everything in the building is original and has been beautifully maintained. The gleaming, gold of the balusters along a wide staircase is evidence of the hours it takes to regularly polish them. Even the draperies and wall hangings in the City Council Chamber are originals.
Our enthusiastic tour guide was one of the building’s security guards. He took us to parts of the Hall not usually seen by the public. For instance, we looked in at the toilet reserved for the city council members during their meetings. It, too, is original with a single stool and two old-fashioned urinals. There was no toilet for women.
There was so much we couldn’t see and do during our short visit that gave us only a taste of this wonderful city. We did look into the Danish Design Museum that contained a wonderful section devoted to the influence of Japanese design.
Given more time we could ride the train a short way up the coast to the castle of Helsingor, the setting for Shakespeare’s Hamlet. A visit to the former home of author Isak Dinesen would be nice. Or we could walk for kilometers on pedestrian pathways, getting a closer look at the architecture we only glimpsed from our canal tour. Tivoli Gardens is an amusement park dating from 1843. What we saw of its attractions as we walked past it looked like a lot of fun.
I’ll end this with a quotation from the first page of our Lonely Planet guide to Denmark:
“You won’t have to search hard to find some much prized hygge, an untranslatable and uniquely Danish trait that has a profound influence on the locals’ inestimable happiness. Hygge is social nirvana in Denmark: a sense of coziness, camaraderie, and contentment.”
We will return.