Vikings: Michael and Dan in Reykjavik and Copenhagen
Or, as the Icelanders say, it’s always better to travel
Daniel Emberley, September 2016
Icelandair offered us a rate to Europe we could not refuse. Two nights in Iceland, and six in Denmark. Iceland is all about nature: as my niece Carolyn told me, if you’ve done winter camping in New Hampshire, you’ve seen it. Copenhagen, on the other hand, was a revelation, one of the most beautiful, friendly, and civilized cities we’ve been in.
Thursday, September 15
The new Silver Line made getting to Dulles easy. The $5 bus from Wiehle Avenue was efficient, but still a long bus trip. Bring cash. On the plane we had good views of Atlantic City, Long Island, and Boston en route to Reykjavik.
Friday, September 16
Our friend Claudia had recommended the Icelandair Hotel Reykjavik Natura. It’s a 1950’s Moderne marvel that has been renovated as an “art hotel”. In 1972, this is where Bobby Fischer beat Boris Spassky at chess. The hotel is located on the edge of their domestic airport, which we had thought would be convenient for our early flight out to Copenhagen on Sunday. That was before we discovered that Reykjavik has two airports; the international, Keflavik, is miles out on a peninsula into the Atlantic. We played like sheep and followed everyone else to the stand for FlyBus to be taken into town.
Iceland has been developing a tourist industry to jumpstart their economy after the Great Recession. Not all of the infrastructure is where it needs to be, and it’s frequently more convenient for Icelanders than visitors. FlyBus is a good example. It did not drop us at our hotel, as advertised, or anyone else’s hotel, but at a highway depot to transfer to a second bus. However, it’s not that big a city, and we could see the domestic airport across the freeway, so hoofed it over instead. It might have made sense to wait for the shuttle, but after hours of sitting we itched to walk anywhere. I’m sure jet lag was affecting our brains, too. The walk was okay, along the fringes of an airport, but it was just ten minutes. Overcast, Iceland in September is dull green, beige, and black, with color coming only from painted buildings.
In a pleasant surprise, the Natura had our room ready at 7:30AM, and let us check in. The restaurant is excellent, with breakfast buffets catering to Germans, Brits, and locals. We sampled skyr, their version of yogurt, along with each of the cuisines. Then, exhausted, we set an alarm for two hours, and took a nap.
Today was our only day to explore Reykjavik. Fortunately, it only takes a day. There are 300,000 people in all of Iceland, and 200,000 of them live in Reykjavik. It is a very automotive society. More cars than people, and several highways that would have been major streets in Houston. Once we crossed the airport road, though, we were just a half hour walk from the downtown of their compact capital. We used the tower of Hallgrimskirkje as our first landmark, and schlepped uphill through their hospital complex to the church square. There are sidewalks here, but instead of lining the streets, they’re more likely to wander as paths through park-like expanses of grass. The landmark helped when the map didn’t.
The church is interesting, a 1937 Art Deco sweep of grey stone up to the tower. It was not completed until 1974; the economy of Iceland could not support the construction of such a large project. Until WWII, when Americans and Brits used Iceland as an operating base, the only economy here was fishing and sheep. Staunchly Lutheran, the church interior is very simple, but does a good job of evoking God with minimal decoration. There was an organ recital when we were there, which certainly helped.
Dominating the church plaza is statue of Leif Eriksson by Alexander Stirling Calder, who sculpted the Logan Square fountain in Philadelphia. Descending the hill on the Skolavordustigur you’re on a short but cool stretch of craft shopping for tourists. Not t-shirt shops, but places selling handknit woolens, tea towels with puffins, and jewelry. That intersects the main bar-retail-restaurant drag Laugevegur, a little less upscale, but still interesting. The buildings all tend to be low rise, just a few stories, none filling their whole blocks. Corrugated metal sheeting is definitely a design statement here, not something to be hidden, but celebrated. Many buildings, enough to make an impression, are brightly painted in blue, red, orange, accenting the more neutral world around them. I wonder if Alaskan towns aren’t like this.
As we approached the waterfront we found ourselves in the kind of condo complexes that we’ve built along 14th Street, or on the Seattle waterfront. Presumably all products of the turn of the Millennium, when people over-hyped real estate as an investment. The buildings aren’t abandoned, but don’t look full, either. The waterfront proper is nicely redeveloped, anchored by the Harpa performing arts center, with an iridescent glass grid on one façade and glass dragon scales on another. We had no interest in seeing Icelanders perform, but they have two nice design stores inside.
Heading inland we walked through the center to the Tjornin, a lovely pond. This is the tip of an extensive park that spreads south to the airport where we were staying. The pond is surrounded by the Victorian houses of the Icelandic upper class of the 20th Century. The walk around it goes through their Neo-Modern glass and concrete city hall, which gave us a chance to explore the large relief model of Iceland there. On the east shore of the pond is the small National Gallery of Iceland, a converted cold storage warehouse. Considering the country has only been independent of Denmark for sixty years, this is a nice kunsthalle kind of place. Good small shows about a Picasso sculpture they own, and the use of text in contemporary art.
We stopped for a break at Koku Kompaniid: Cake Company Artisan Patisserie. My diabetes schedule had gone to hell, and we figured why not get lunch while we had a decent place. Aside from the hotel’s restaurant, Satt, this was the best food we had in Iceland, sandwiches and pastry.
The National Museum of Iceland is just around the Tjornin from the Gallery, adjacent to their National University. A good overview of the history of the country from Viking/Norwegian/abducted Irish girl settlement through ownership by Norway and Denmark, independence from the Nazi-occupied Danes, and today. Two well-curated floors of the unique culture Icelanders created, and one more slapdash floor covering 1904 to today. Lots of runes, fishing, raiders, and subsistence farming. The first floor is their National Museum of Photography, which was showing Iceland in postcards.
We could have caught a bus back to the hotel, but had no curiosity to learn their bus/payment system for one trip. A not-unpleasant walk through the park, along the airport, and back to the Natura. Instead of repeating the journey we ate dinner at the hotel, a good smoked salmon Caesar and pasta carbonara.
Saturday, September 17
There are two big things to do in Iceland: the Blue Lagoon, and the Golden Circle. The Blue Lagoon is a very touristy set of geothermally heated swimming pools out by the main airport. That is a nice way of saying it is where the geothermal power plant holds its refuse water until they can dump it into the harbor without killing fish. Eh. If you want to swim in geothermal water, Reykjavik runs several pool complexes in the neighborhoods. The Laugardalur Thermal Pools are highly recommended, and also have a botanic garden.
We did want to take the Golden Circle tour, however. This is a loosely collected set of natural sights on a six to eight-hour circular drive from the capital. You can drive the route yourself, or get one of the buses run by competing companies. The travel desk at the Natura recommended BusTravel Island, and we booked through them. Excellent choice. We had an early pickup of 7:30 at the hotel, which gave me time to admire The Pearl across the freeway. This is a dome-shaped revolving restaurant on top of a museum dedicated to the old Norse sagas. Our tour was supposed to be twenty people or less, but our little shuttle played the same routine as delivery from the airport, and brought us to a gas station where we rendezvoused with other hotel shuttles to join a group of sixty on a comfortable full size coach. Our guide was a former prison warden who was fresh, fun, knew his material, and loved interpreting Iceland to foreigners. An hour’s run out of town got us to Selfoss, a tourist trap/truck stop for people to purchase breakfast; we liked the re-creation of the continental chasm in the floor, commemorating where the European and North American tectonic plates are separating to create volcanic Iceland. Just watching the scenery along the highway is cool, green, and lovely; every few feet a stream enters the drainage ditch along the freeway in a miniature waterfall. Amazing vistas of moss-lined lakes. The landscape reminded us of South Dakota, Colorado, and northern York.
Our first “real” stop was Kerith, a crater lake in a former volcano. Time for us to walk the trail at crater’s rim, which descends in streaks of iron-rich red soil and moss to the crystal-clear lake. We’d missed Crater Lake in Oregon this spring, so were glad to be here.
Half an hour on is Faxi, or Horsetail Falls. From the name I’d expected a tall thin fall, but this was wide and rocky, like a small Iguazu or larger version of the Norris Dam in Kentucky. Tour books complain about crowds on the Golden Circle, but we did not experience any problem getting as close to the sites as we wanted. Gullfoss waterfall is as far east as we got, and one of the sites on every tour’s agenda. It is a spectacular double cascade, with the second fall at a right angle to the first. Tons of water, even this late in the season, and majestic.
Lunch brought us to Geysir, which is the origin of the word “geyser” in English and most other languages. This is a miniature Yellowstone: bubbling mineral pots, active thermal pools, and a geyser, Strokker, which erupts every fifteen minutes or so. Tourist facilities are well developed, with large shops and two restaurants, useful for a mid-day break.
Circling back about half an hour toward Reykjavik brought us to Thingvellir National Park. I had low expectations, but it is magnificent. Our guide led us on a hike along the escarpment where the two tectonic plates meet. This is awe inspiring, black basalt cliffs on the American side and green fields about twenty feet below on the European, with a large lake in the distance. This is also where the Thing, the Icelandic Parliament, the world’s oldest continuing democracy, was created. Our favorite quote of the trip came here, as the guide told us that Icelanders believe you must travel to gain an education. Their word for “ignorant” translates as “home schooled”.
About six hours on and off the bus, this was an amazing tour, well worth it. For people who want to do more nature, camp on a glacier, hike fjords, Iceland offers all of that. The Golden Circle, though, is a great introduction for people who are only here to change planes.
Back in town, the Guide let us jump off on the east end of town, and we shopped our way down Laugevegur. Our quest was a good restaurant for dinner, but we were disappointed. Reykjavik is justly proud of its music scene, and is known for its heavy drinking. We saw lots of pho and pizza places, probably to absorb the alcohol, but no local food scene. We ended up in a pizza/kabob place near the university, just okay fish & chips and lamb over rice, for a whopping $50. We appreciated the restaurant at our hotel. We hiked along the pond and back to the highway near the Natura, stopping at a gas station plaza. They had a Subway and a juice bar, but also a big fluorescent sign for Serrano. We’d hoped this would be a discount tapas place, but it turned out to just be Mexican food.
We liked Iceland, but do not need to return in the near future. There is a lot of space for very few people. Tons of cars, but few freeways in our sense, more crowded British-style highways with roundabouts. Few regular exits, no breakdown lanes or service roads. Nature is all around you, even in the city. Not a lot of public bathrooms, so use them when you find them, and hold on to your 100 krona coins in case they’re pay-only. People are friendly and nice, no one expects you to speak Icelandic, and most have enough English to help you get what they want to sell you.
Sunday, September 18
We had not been happy with the FlyBus service, so the Natura booked us return to the airport on Airport Direct. We had a 7:30 flight to Copenhagen, and were concerned about the transfer. Airport Direct was a breeze, with a sociable driver who entertained me in conversation about Icelanders, their driving habits, and our mutual national economies. Icelandair flew us easily to Denmark, we got our bags, and prepared for customs. We kept with the crowd, passing through areas signed for passport control and import, but no one was manning them. When we found ourselves at the elevator to the subway platform we looked at each other incredulously but kept going. Bought our Metro fare, looked for a place to validate the tickets, and a nice transit employee handed us a bus/Metro map and told us to “just ride the train”. The subway here is fantastic and easy, two lines that merge downtown, so all we had to do was watch for our station and exit. No drivers, the system is fully automated, and since there is an honor system about validating your fare all you have to do is show your ticket if a conductor asks. Urbane, civilized; we were happy to be here and we hadn’t even tasted a butter cookie.
We exited at Kongens Nytorv, the “king’s new town”; at least, it was new in 1670 when Christian V laid it out. Usually this is an urban park in the center of Copenhagen, but right now it is a construction zone as they build a new Metro line. It was easy to orient ourselves, and we headed north through upper class shopping to the Christian IV Hotel. Every king of Denmark seems to be a Christian or a Frederick, and the two queens are both Margarethe. We never figured them out, but Christian IV is the one to remember if you’re going to learn any. He lived from 1577-1648, inherited a rich empire that included southern Sweden, cities on the Baltic, Norway, Iceland, Greenland, and the German provinces of Schleswig and Holstein. He began the path of European wars that lost Denmark most of these, the Swedish and Baltic territories under his watch. That losing of an empire is something sociologists who write on Denmark note as key to their culture; the loss is part of what makes a Dane a Dane.
Back to practicalities, we needed to dump our bags. The hotel, God bless them, let us check in early. It is a lovely boutique hotel, tiniest elevator we’ve seen since Madrid, great location, friendly staff, excellent breakfast buffet. Not cheap, but not pricey for Copenhagen, either, at $220/night. Much of Copenhagen follows the model we saw in Berlin of houses on interior courts. This can be noisy, but also gives a nice private space with light. Our courtyard came with chickens, which Michael loved, waking us up at dawn each day. Our neighborhood, Frederiksstaden, was laid out in 1750 between Christian IV’s Rosenborg Palace and Neoclassical Amalienborg Palace. Long blocks extend north between Kongens Nytorv and the old fortress, the Kastellet. Grand mansions and palaces line these blocks, except right around our hotel, which looks like four city blocks of 1970’s brick urban renewal. We discovered that this complex replaced what had been the Jewish ghetto. When Jews fled Poland and Russia in the 1890’s they landed here if they made it to Denmark. They faced the same internal Jewish community prejudice from older German-Danish communities as they experienced in America. So, they created their own compact neighborhood that ran down over time. Under Nazi occupation the Danes smuggled their 7,000 Jews across the Sound to neutral Sweden. Which left them with an empty neighborhood in some of their priciest real estate. What I’d written off as unfortunate 1970’s high-rises was actually a prescient design by Kay Fisker from 1942. It is one of the models America followed, on the cheap, when designing public housing in the 1960’s. It’s solidly middle class, with decent restaurants and shopping on the ground floors, and plenty of parking, a rarity in Copenhagen, on what had been cobblestoned plazas. Pretty cool, and at two stories taller than everything around it, an easy landmark for finding our way back to the hotel.
One of my must-sees backed onto our courtyard. Davids Samling, the David Collection, is one of the world’s best museums of Islamic art. We’d seen pieces from their collection this spring in Salem, at the Peabody Museum, and I’d made a note to check it out if we ever got to Denmark. Mr. David created ISS, a major security and janitorial company in Europe. Never married (ahem), he collected European decorative arts and Danish painting as well as the Islamic, renovating his former family mansion across from Rosenborg Gardens to house it all. This is astounding, a treasure house of art in a home, where you wander from gallery to hall to dining room never knowing what you’re going to see around the next corner. The top two floors have more Islamic art than I’ve ever seen in one place, from cultures I never knew created it (Russian khanates, Indonesian islands, Sicily.) I kept recognizing pieces I’d last seen as slides in my college art classes. The two original residential floors have the European decorative, furniture, incredible porcelain, and rooms decorated in the style of the Danish Golden Age (what we would call Victorian). Temporary galleries were showing Vilhelm Hammershoi (Danish, 1880-1910, like if Thomas Eakins was painting in quiet Charles Sheeler interiors lit by Winslow Homer) and Persian book illustration. Amazing, and always free.
We wandered south to Kongens Nytorv, where I got my first hot dog from a Danish cart. These are amazing, cheap, and delicious. Danish dogs are like German hot dogs, but longer, and with a snap to the skin. Order them “full Danish” to get two kinds of mustard, ketchup, raw and crisp fried onions, and sweet pickle slices. These became my go-to snack. We walked east to Nyhaven, the very touristy old port of 1800’s taverns now upscale restaurants, and on to the 2008 New Royal Playhouse, stacks of stone and glass overlooking a harbor walk. Great views of the harbor, Henning Larsen Architects’ 2004 Opera House, and bridges across to Christianshaven. Skt. Annae Plads, a wide garden/boulevard, cut us back through Frederiksstaden to the hotel to rest.
We could have eaten anywhere, but were still not comfortable with where we were and our options. We decided to test how they do American fast food in Denmark. Through the gorgeous Rosenborg Gardens to Norreport Metro and Burger King. This was our worst meal in Denmark, and it was just okay: very similar food to at an American BK, burger perhaps a little drier. The service and menu, though, are bizarre. They seem to think that Burger King is a restaurant, not a place to grab food and leave. A menu limited to the burgers, and fried chicken by the piece. No salads or greens of any kind. No number with your order; you ask for what you want by name (so much for my usual “Give me #1”, holding up a single finger in foreign countries). When the order is ready they shout out what has been put on the tray, and you’re supposed to recognize that this is your Whopper, not that of someone else. On the positive side, the woman who took our order had perfect English, and was excited when she learned we were Americans to hear how we did BK differently. They wisely have a slop sink for your ice when you discard your packaging, so it doesn’t go into the trash. Interesting to learn, exactly why we do fast food in other countries.
We wandered south and east through the University Quarter, by Christian IV’s Rundetaarn. This is a round tower, a continuous spiral ramp (Peter the Great supposedly rode his horse up) to an observatory at the top. Cool brick and stone structure, but we decided against the hike up. Bookstores, and funkier shopping than we’d seen earlier. Copenhagen has very textured blocks: almost no buildings take up a whole block, and there are layers of construction from 1807 (the last time the city suffered heavy damage, the Brits bombed them in the Napoleonic Wars) to today. Neighborhoods change very quickly, a block or two gives an entirely different feel. We liked it a lot. Michael was on a quest for a salad after his chicken-heavy Burger King experience, and we discovered that 7-11 here is a completely different thing. Same chain, but with lots of well prepared food you’d actually want to eat. Not a Big Bite or Slurpee to be seen.
Monday, September 19
We started this morning walking down the Stroget, pronounced “stroll”. (Danes, Norwegians, and Swedes can apparently read each other’s languages easily, but the Danes drop so many letters and syllables in speaking that the others cannot understand them.) The Stroget was the first place in the world where shopping streets were closed to cars. In America pedestrian malls are a failed symbol of the 1970’s, but the Stroget is wildly successful, a collection of curving, interesting, shop- and restaurant-lined blocks interlaced with arcades, courtyards, contemporary and historic buildings. We were on a quest for Copenhagen Cards, which get you into most museums and tourist sites and on all public transport for $30/day. We bought these for each day of our stay. We’re still not sure if this was the most cost effective deal, but it made cutting lines and getting on and off transit a breeze, and because we only had to pay for it once, saved a ton in bank service charges.
We shopped at the Royal Copenhagen and Georg Jensen stores, walked by Lego and Bang & Olufsen, and the 1608 Fountain of Charity. The University Library is a brilliant piece of Romantic architecture. Vor Frue Kirke, “Our Lady’s”, is Copenhagen’s cathedral. It is oddly blocky outside but has a fantastic restrained Neoclassical interior. Bertel Thorvaldsen’s statues of the apostles line the nave, with the Jesus you’ve seen in Mormon temples in his original incarnation at the altar. A gracious expression of Lutheranism, neither Spanish Baroque insanity nor sterile Modernism.
Christiansborg Palace is the site of the original settlement of Copenhagen by Bishop Absalon around 1200. There were a series of palaces built here, some burned down, some fell to siege. One was torn down stone-by-stone by the Wends. Who ever heard of Wends? The current palace is from 1907, and has never been a royal residence. Instead, it houses three branches of government: the parliament, the prime minister’s offices, and the supreme court. Tourists come to see the historic riding grounds (where a coach and horses seemed to perpetually circle) and the Royal Reception Rooms, where Queen Margarethe II entertains formally. Unfortunately, that’s just what she was doing, so we were shunted instead to the ruins. These were discovered during construction of the current palace, and are a series of excavations that display the foundations of several of the castles/forts/palaces that were here. Well interpreted, worth seeing, they reminded us of similar archaeology under the palace in Brussels, but not as extensive.
For lunch we headed back to Kongens Nytorv, and Magasin du Nord. This is one of the great department stores of Europe, with a fine series of restaurants on the top floor. We got our first smorrebrod, thin slices of rye bread with a variety of fresh, delicious, and beautifully arranged toppings. We shopped the top floors of the store; great design/housewares on the third level.
We walked up Bredgade (“Broad Street”) to Marmorkirken, the Marble Church. Baroque/Neoclassical? Too over-the-top for us, but easy to be awed by. The church is focus of one of the best pieces of Baroque town planning in the world. It’s hard to appreciate its siting right now due to subway construction, but this is the western anchor of the Amalienborg development of 1748. Four Neoclassical palaces shape an octagonal plaza. To the east, the new Opera House is on axis across the harbor. On the west is the Marble Church. The south is framed by a classical portico, like the Brandenburg Gate. It is a gracious, civilized space. The palaces were planned for the nobility, but the royal family moved to the southeastern palace in 1884 when they got tired of being burned out of Christiansborg. There is a changing of the guard ceremony here, but our only participation was to accidentally block one of the guards in his route as we tried to figure out which of the four identical facades housed the Amalienborg Palace Museum. This tells the story of the royal houses of Oldenburg and Glucksburg, lots of dusty royal knick knacks, and recreated studies of the last four kings of Denmark. We attempted to master the Christians and Fredericks, but did not retain what we learned. The present Queen, Margarethe II, is pretty cool; she designs children’s books and stamps as well as serving as monarch. This is not unusual in Denmark: they do not have a large population, and so people often multitask. Even if they’re not royalty.
We took a breather at the hotel, where Michael cut his foot in the bathroom. If you go to a Danish pharmacy, be sure to find the computer monitor and get a number before doing anything else. I made everyone nervous lurking at the counter until someone clued me in. They have wicked cool bandages, continuous lengths of pad with adhesive on either side, so you can cut off just the amount you need.
Freshly bandaged, we walked back to the Stroget. We stocked up on silver Christmas ornaments at Georg Jensen, looked for cool design at HAY House, and explored the other great department store, Illum. Illums’ housewares department, Illums Bolighus, carries a whimsical and delightful line from Swedish designer Elsa Beskow: anthropomorphic fruits and flowers and lawyers in friezes across ceramics, cards, and napkins.
We found dinner at a Turkish buffet off the Stroget. The dining room faced a church where they were rehearsing a concert, so we got all the vegetables we could eat plus a free show. We checked out the Radhus, City Hall, with Martin Nyrop’s excellent Arts and Crafts symbolism evoking medieval Denmark.
Tivoli Gardens is the main reason I wanted to go to Copenhagen. It did not disappoint; it is charming, exciting, fun, and laid back, all at once, like the best county fair ever, or a non-commercial Disneyland. Even on a slow Monday night it was full of people just enjoying the environment, eating food from cotton candy to cuisine, listening to free concerts and cashing in tickets they’d had to reserve for sold out performances months before. You wander through Chinese and Indian themed spaces that are exotic and fun without being condescending or racist. They’ve got every trick here to distract you: fun house mirrors, colored lights, fountains, music. Rides, gardens, ice cream, candy. A Chinese pantomime theater with a curtain of a giant peacock. We joked that all they were missing was live animals, when we realized there was a flock of guinea hens pecking on the bench behind us, and chickens who live in a coop that looks like Palladio’s Villa Rotonda.
We caught the bus back to our neighborhood; superfast and efficient. Make sure you stand up to exit as soon as you pull the stop button; we hadn’t figured out the etiquette, and annoyed the bus driver by not being ready to exit at our stop. There were lots of small supermarkets in our area, we checked out several stocking up on snacks for us and souvenirs for home.
Tuesday, September 20
The 1A bus took us right Christiansborg Palace. The Queen had finished her entertaining, so the reception rooms were open. The same guard who had met us at the ruins was taking tickets here today, she remembered us and joked that she was the only employee in the whole complex. The palace rooms are lavish but appropriate, lots of small economies that were practical and lovely. Over-door paintings in one grand hall were done by a construction worker who was discovered to be a fine artist in his off hours. The chandeliers that once hung in the Governor’s Palace in St. Thomas were moved here when the Danes sold us what are now the U.S. Virgin Islands: they sold us the land, but the fixtures did not convey. The royal library is great, as is the hall of Gobelin tapestries from the 1960’s telling the history of Denmark. One of my favorite areas was the gift shop, in a basement hallway with supporting columns like struggling giants.
Across the courtyard is Thorvaldsen’s Museum. Bertel Thorvaldsen was one of the two great Neoclassical sculptors of 1800’s Rome, a rival of Canova. He was born in Iceland, and went to art school in Copenhagen. You see his work all over the Eternal City, where he lived for thirty years. The Danes convinced him to come home by building him this museum. The architect, Bindesboll, designed an Egyptian temple surrounded by a concrete frieze showing Thorvaldsen’s collections traveling to Denmark. Galleries surround a corridor, which in turn encloses a courtyard with Thorvaldsen’s grave. It’s very classic and formal without being staid. Great use of color to offset the plaster models and marble sculptures. The plasters were Thorvaldsen’s original work; he would hand these to Italian stonecutters who would recreate the pieces in marble. The museum has at least one version of every sculpture the artist did, also his collection of paintings and antiquities. Michael liked his roundels of Day and Night. The museum is too dignified to be a wunderkammer, like the David Samling, but is just as great a collection.
Down the block is the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek. That’s Carlsberg as in the beer. Carl Jacobsen, heir to the brewery, collected ancient art, Greek and Roman, and what was then contemporary French and Danish painting and sculpture. So, lots of white marble statues, Danish Golden Age canvases, and Post-Impressionist painting. To make sure Copenhageners actually showed up he had a winter garden built in the center of the galleries, so even if you didn’t want to come for enlightenment, you might still like the plants. We had lunch in the garden, decent but overpriced salmon and brie smorrebrod. It felt like Glasgow’s People’s Palace, a great Victorian greenhouse with culture on the side. The galleries are confusing, two main buildings connected by a narrow passage, and then a new building for the French art filling one courtyard but entered separately. The collections are excellent, but better were the plaster ceilings and terrazzo floors in the 1901 building. Each gallery has a matching floor and ceiling with images of a single plant: daisies, chrysanthemums, papyrus, hops (thank you, Carlsberg). Brilliant, but exhausting: WAY too much art for one morning.
We got on the 26 bus to Rosenborg Castle. We’d been through the gardens to cut over to the Norreport Metro, but now paid attention to them, discovering a massive rose collection within high trimmed hedges. The castle was Christian IV’s summer palace, heavy Jacobean-Dutch red brick with stone trim. Small dark rooms on four floors are jammed with tschotchkes collected by 400 years of royalty. Lots of amber; most amber comes from the Baltic, and Copenhagen controls access to the Baltic. A cool mirror room, porcelain and glass collections arranged to copy those in Dresden. A fun set of gold figurines looked like maybe seven sets of chess figures collected together; they were used to teach the imperial princes military strategy. The Danish Crown Jewels are in the basement; we found ourselves there with a Chinese tour group.
We were exhausted, but since our hotel was on the park, we strolled across and rested a bit. Heading back out we stopped at Tranquebar. Tranquebar was Denmark’s colony in India, which they eventually sold to the Brits. This bookstore is named after the colony; it specializes in travel books and literature. At least half of the books are English imprints; there is not a big enough market to justify printing many titles in Danish.
For my birthday dinner Michael took me to Geist. Copenhagen has a vibrant and adventurous food scene. The “world’s best restaurant”, Noma, is currently closed, moving to a new space near the harbor. But Noma and other places developing fresh Nordic cuisine have sparked brilliant cooking around the city. Geist is part of this, created by former Noma staff in a courtyard north of Kongens Nytorv. We were stunned by the quality of the service (simultaneously professional and friendly), the comfortable space, and the excellent food. Since we were wicked early we were shown to two of the preferred seats looking in at the kitchen, and got to see our dinner performed. Rum punch with blackberry pearls, a ginseng Old Fashioned, raw zucchini salad with pistachio and jalapeno, stewed spinach, scallop and chicken wings cooked in brown butter, and charred beef tenderloin with banana. The last is one of their signatures, bananas baked at a low temperature so long they become a reddish-brown sauce. Amazing. The most daring taste might have been the raspberries and sorbet with paprika. Who would have put these together, but it worked. To our surprise, this was all relatively affordable, at just $150. What we remember most, though, is the bread; a basket of small rolls just out of the oven that seemed to refill itself as much as we tried to empty it.
We walked dinner off by crossing the bike bridge to the east side of the harbor, Christianshaven. Copenhagen had been a major port until after World War II, when Rotterdam took over ship transport for northern Europe (just like Newark and Houston in the U.S.) That has given architects an entire port to redevelop. We walked down Strandgade, passing new office towers and condos in former warehouses. The conversions are better than the new construction, and none of the neighborhood has the density, convenience, or charm of downtown just across the harbor. The Danish Architecture Center was a complete boor, made worse in that it was between shows, so not worth coming back to get into. At Knippelsbro Bridge we caught a 9 bus toward Tivoli, and switched to a 1A north and to home. The bus system is easy to learn, we were feeling comfortable with it and had only been here three days.
Wednesday, September 21
The Botanical Gardens are just west of Rosenborg Castle, mainly trees surrounding some massive glass houses. The edges are kept in by institutional brick Romantic-style buildings of the University’s natural science departments. We walked through on our way to Norreport Station. Norreport is a major train station, with not just the Metro, but also commuter rail and Danish State Railway lines. All of that is underground, though, so from the street all you see are pavilions with the different train logos. We chose the commuter train, and took it north to the suburb of Humlebaek. One advantage of the Copenhagen Card is we did not have to worry about buying tickets or getting them validated. The train to Helsingor (that’s Hamlet’s Elsinore, for you Shakespeare fans) always stops at Humlebaek. The ride up is pretty, through well-manicured suburbs that look like Chevy Chase.
And why are we city boys in the suburbs? To go to Louisiana, of course! The Louisiana is one of the world’s great museums of modern and contemporary art. The original owner of the property had three wives name Louise (not all at once, we’re talking Lutherans in Denmark, not Mormons). Knud Jensen, cheese magnate, purchased the property and created the museum to further contemporary art in Europe. After several additions, the museum flows in a circle of galleries, some below ground, on the Sound looking toward Sweden. It was about a fifteen-minute walk from the train station, well signed, and we quickly found ourselves part of a parade of people heading there. We got nervous at the crowd of students, but when the museum opened they were quickly absorbed into the space. The shows are always temporary, and major events in the art world. The gallery spaces are fantastic, but the art on view, by Daniel Richter and Poul Gernes, complete crap. Lunch in the café was breathtaking, shrimp-egg and mushroom smorrebrod with vistas from a glass cube of the ocean and Sweden. The grounds are the best part of the museum, with installations of sculpture by the biggest names. An entire Calder terrace, a Richard Serra artfully placed to form a gate in the woods, a couldn’t-possibly-be-to-code stair along the cliff by George Trakas. On the ride back to town we got into the 1st Class carriage by mistake, but no one questioned us, no one joined us, and no one asked to see our tickets, so we rode like the enlightened despots we are.
We got off the train back at Norreport, and hit a bakery (lovely cookies) on our walk north to the Statens Museum for Kunst/National Gallery of Denmark. This is a double building, the massive original by Jens Dahlerup, an odd structure that looks like a Palladian gateway with a box behind it, and C.F. Moellers Tegnestue’s glass addition of 1995 behind that. The expected overview of Western painting, some brilliant Cranach, Brueghel, Rubens, and Derain. Also the Greatest Hits of Danish Golden Age painting. Danish painting in the 1800’s was very good, better than our own. It suffers in art history, though, because all the best examples are in three buildings: this one, the Hirschsprungsske Gallery across the park, and the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek across town. So, if you want to see it, you’d better get to Copenhagen. There is an “interior street” between the old museum and the addition, with recently created art. Michael liked the artist who moved everything he owned to this space as his piece, and came in every morning to trade clothes and pick up things he needed that day. The addition is used for the expected offices, kids workshop, and café. It also holds, though, a skylit passage and set of galleries dedicated to contemporary art, including several excellent rooms for long term installations and video. Well thought out and curated.
Between the art museum and Norreport station is the Torvehallerne food market. I had thought from write-ups that these were a repurposing of industrial space, but it looked like two new glass halls to me. We made an initial recovery stop at a stand for elderflower gelato. We then explored both halls and the market between. Many prepared-food vendors, a few retail shops, and even fewer fresh food purveyors. This looks like what D.C.’s Union Market wants to be when it grows up: a pseudo-industrial food scene for the young and rich of Copenhagen. Fun. We picked up an Asian salad, fish balls, a banh mi, and Jutland chocolate for dinner, which we ate in our hotel room.
After dinner we walked over to the Designmuseum Denmark. This is the former Frederiksstad Hospital, a 1750 classical courtyard and wards by Niels Eigtved and Laurids de Thurah, sort of the Daniel Bulfinch and Benjamin Latrobe of Denmark. The wards are well adapted for both temporary shows (Asian influence in Danish design) and the permanent collection (the greatest hits of Danish Modern). More chairs that we couldn’t sit in than we’ve ever seen. We discovered the 1950’s textile artist Marie Gudne Leth, a Danish version of Ray Eames, funky colorful brilliant fabric patterns with a European spin. Wish her work was in circulation, I would stock up in a heartbeat.
Home by Skt. Anne’s Passage, a continuation of the Skt. Anne’s Plads we’d walked our first night here, snaking through buildings sometimes as an arcade, others as just an alley. Fun.
Thursday, September 22
We’d only bought three-day Copenhagen Cards, not sure if they were worth the investment. We should have bought five-day up front, but who knew? The hostel down the street, Generator, sold us cards for our last two days, and gave us a glimpse of hostel life, which is a common option for travelers given Denmark’s high cost. We continued south to Christiansborg.
The National Museum is in Niels Eigtved’s 1743 Crown Prince’s Palace. Like the Designmuseum, circles of galleries around grand courtyards. Unlike Design, lots of modifications and additions; these made the building more confusing, but also light, airy, and efficient. We headed straight for the second floor, the history of Denmark since 1660. Great narrative, the loss of empire and the acceptance of industrial modernity and social responsibility. Unlike most history museums they do an excellent job bringing the story to the present, with exhibits on gay marriage (Denmark was the first country to offer it, in 1989) and immigrants and Danes adapting to each other. Also on this floor is a dusty exhibit of toys and dense display of dollhouses.
This was exhausting, we took a break for lunch. Being next to Christiansborg, we despaired of finding an affordable decent meal, but lucked out at Mums, an organic earth-crunchy deli with a few small counters for dining. This was a find, massive portions of chili con carne over rice, a chorizo sandwich, and salad with chicken, total under $30. Back to the Museum, we conquered the first floor, which preserved the Crown Prince’s chambers from an indefinite period before 1800 and told the story of the Danish Middle Ages and Renaissance. The chambers need to be freshened up, and the Middle Ages here were not that different from in the rest of Europe. We skipped the Museum’s anthropology and Greek and Roman exhibits, but spent a lot of time on the ground floor, in the galleries on Danish Pre-History. This is what most people come for, lots of preserved bog people and jewelry and horned helmets. Brilliantly displayed and explained, both in formal cases and recreations of tomb finds of gold and amber.
Across a canal and past Christiansborg Palace is the garden of the Royal Library. The new Library, the “Black Diamond”, a modern glass monster on the harbor, did not impress us. The original library, however, in Danish Romantic style, is a colorful building in the same style as our Arts and Industries Building on the Mall. We ate cookies in front of the statue of Soren Kierkegaard. The first floor of the old library is now the Danish Jewish Museum. This is a small collection that tells well the story of Jews in Denmark, in galleries designed by Daniel Liebeskind. The architect’s conceit is that the gallery’s plan is in the shape of the Hebrew letters for “mitzvah”, a good deed. I challenge any reader of Hebrew to make that out, but it was cool to learn how the Jewish experience in Denmark differed from the U.S.
Copenhagen runs a canal bus as part of their regular bus network. The boats are not frequent, about twenty minutes apart, but they both connect distant areas for locals and provide a fun cheap tour of new architecture on the harbor. We picked up a boat at Black Diamond, and rode it south past a lot of the contemporary architecture that was on my check list. Olafur Eliasson’s Cirkelbroen, the Circle Bridge, is less impressive than it looks in pictures. Most of the buildings look good in photos, but live seem way overscale for this city. Glass boxes, and concrete boxes with grids of square windows. More important, we saw no street life, it’s like developers are plopping offices and residences down on the water, but not giving people anywhere to shop, eat, or hang out. The Harbour Bath is an outdoor swimming pool in the former Iceland Docks, but were closed for the season, so we were happy to sail by. There is still plenty of land to be developed, but we were not impressed with what they’ve done so far. We rode to the southern end of the run and then back north to Nyhaven.
We walked back to Kongens Nytorv and Magasin du Nord. We had missed some major floors of this store, and were glad we came back. Their food halls in the basement are fantastic, tons of the expected gourmet groceries, but also a regular supermarket and a high-end liquor department. We got a Full Danish hot dog on the walk back to the Christian IV to chill.
We had dinner at Royal Garden, a Chinese restaurant near the hotel. Chinese food on the street here looks horrible: limpid meat in grey gravy served from a steam table in a storefront. This was much better, fresh, tasty, and well-served. We were surprised that the four dishes we ordered came together on one large platter, but the flavors did not mix into a jumble. This is like the Cantonese food we were serving in America before 1970. Even though the staff were a mix of Mandarin and Cantonese speakers, they seem to be cooking what Danes have come to expect of Chinese food, rather than pushing their taste buds.
Our post-dinner stroll was up Store Kongensgade (Great King Street) to the Esplanaden, by the palaces and churches we’d come to expect from Frederiksstad. The Esplanaden is a boulevard that abuts the Kastellet, the old defensive fort that is now a city park. The southern section has the Anglican Church and a park in honor of Winston Churchill. The Gefion Fountain closes off this bit of Baroque town planning with a staircase leading to a large basin, where the goddess Gefion has turned her sons into bulls and chained them to a plow to create the islands that are Zealand (which Copenhagen is on). Down the harbor through Maersk headquarters, skyscrapers and former palaces holding Denmark’s largest employer, the shipping company. The waterside walk here is great, passed the Aftsobningssamling (Royal Cast Collection) in a former warehouse, and on to the major plaza that visually connects the Opera House across the canal to Amalienborg Palace behind us.
We could have gone north from Maersk for the Little Mermaid, but decided it made more sense for us to be the only American tourists who have been to Copenhagen and never seen it. The statue is on a spit of land near nothing, and is apparently just what you see on postcards, a mediocre 1950’s metal mermaid on a rock. Sorry, Ariel.
Friday, September 23
Last day in Copenhagen: where to begin? We went into the court of our hotel to visit the chickens, then back to the first place we’d been, David Samling, this time with a camera. Michael recorded the decorative arts while I revisited the Islamic galleries. Then over to the Designmuseum to buy mugs we should have purchased when we first saw them. By the Gefion Fountain, this time in daylight, then caught the canal bus over to Christianshaven. The University of Copenhagen’s architecture, theater, film, and planning schools are here, in former barracks and warehouses. Nicely renovated, but overall a dull campus. We walked behind the Opera to Papiroen. This is a giant shed, probably once with an industrial use, now housing takeout stands with all kinds of food. We got fried fish smorrebrod, a hot dog with pesto and potatoes, and the best dessert ever served on a cardboard tray: a Berliner (sugar donut), caramelized, and topped with homemade ice cream. Unbelievable. You eat at picnic tables on the harbor, a fun food scene where I think we were the oldest people. Adjacent is the Contemporary Art Museum of Copenhagen, but they expected us to pay (gasp), so we filled out a Yoko Ono wish tree slip in the outdoor space and left.
We took the funky bike bridge south, and walked around Christiania. This is one of the big tourist sites in Copenhagen. In the 1970’s it was an abandoned military area that was taken over by hippies. Over time the hippies built their own housing in and around the barracks, “legalized” marijuana, and created a self-governing commune. The city fathers have compromised with the squatters to regularize delivery of water, sewage, and schooling, and the squatters self-police to ensure that nothing harder than marijuana is sold. An interesting compromise. The Women’s Welding Cooperative was cool, as was the homemade housing. Overall it felt like an even-more-self-righteous Cambridge or Takoma. I felt the lurking guys with long hair seemed predatory, Michael less so. We exited on Pusher Street, a place named after drug dealers that now sells souvenir t-shirts. Sic transit gloria.
Vor Frelsers Kirke (Our Saviour’s Church) dates to 1682. An interesting experience in Lutheran Baroque. Amazing steeple from 1750 by Laurids de Thurah, it rises in an exterior spiral staircase that looks great on the skyline. Open to the public for the vistas, but too frightening for us to climb. Inside is whitewashed simple, which only makes the gilded altar and baptistery even more amazing. The altar is surrounded by pseudo-Bernini stone angels, and the organ opposite supported by gilded and lapis lazuli elephants.
We left the church on a quest for a design shop which has closed since my last guide book was printed. Gave us an excuse to check out the rather bland retail stretch on this side of the harbor. It’s not as boring as New York City’s Roosevelt Island, but close. We headed into the Metro station here to run a test for tomorrow. I was concerned that all the honor system transit we’d experienced might be exceptional, and wanted to be prepped for our airport run. The station is appallingly deep, but no, we strolled right onto the platform and a train without having to show our Copenhagen card to a soul.
It’s just two stops to Norreport. We shopped in a fabric store, and outran a sun shower to the Arbejdermuseet, Workers’ Museum. We weren’t sure what to expect here – it is not on the main tourist itinerary, but people who wrote about it really liked it. As did we. Contemporary socially conscious Denmark is not an accident; it took the same types of people fighting for the rights of workers as we had in the States. The difference is that in Denmark the labor movement did not allow itself to be coopted and undercut by rich industrialists. The Assembly Hall of the museum is a former worker’s hall (like the IBEW Hall in my hometown), where Karl Marx once spoke to machinists and shipyard workers. It’s a great room, with glass ceiling and painted walls commemorating labor. The galleries tell the story of Danish industry from the perspective of people who work in it. Sadly, all in Danish, the only time we were at a disadvantage as English speakers. They also preserve a series of apartments showing how Danish workers lived in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Today’s rich Denmark is a very recent thing; it was cool to see stuff from our childhoods in rooms that were lived in by poor, but getting better, people like our parents. Could use some dusting and freshening up, but then again, so could the rooms at Rosenborg Palace, so it doesn’t seem to be a class thing (smile).
We walked around two sides of the Botanic Garden to Den Hirschsprungske Samling, the Hirschsprung Collection. This small museum in the form of a Neoclassical temple is one of the best collections of Danish Art from the Golden Age. The artists I’d started to learn and like from other museums in Copenhagen: Ancher, Hammershoi, Kobke. I discovered I really liked P.S. Kroyer, someone who in American art might be called an Impressionist or Luminist, but whose Academic painting was at least as good as William Merritt Chase. If the National Gallery is overwhelming for you, this collection is a good introduction to Danish art.
We walked back to the hotel via the Ostre Anlag. Most of the parks we visited had once been part of the city walls of Copenhagen. The Botanic Gardens, the Kastellet, even Tivoli Gardens were once the fortifications of the city. Today’s ponds and lakes were moats, and the hillocks the remains of the walls in what is otherwise a flat city. Ostre Anlag is one of the few that reflect that, its name means “eastern installations”. Today it is an English-style landscape that reminded us of Central Park. We cut kitty-corner across Rosenborg Gardens, finding the statue of Hans Christian Andersen that all the guide books told us to seek out.
Our final dinner was at Madklubben. It sounds like some crazy Boy George themed nightclub, but Mad just means “food” in Danish. This is a chain of restaurants offering well prepared food at reasonable prices. We chose the 200 kroner three course special. A limited number of options for each course, but delicious with laid back professional service. You could take a date here for a nice dinner, or your parents for their anniversary. We were pleased with our salads, plaice, steak tartar, pork belly, roast chicken, and pudding desserts. With cava, only came to $40 each.
Saturday, September 24
No drama. We caught the subway to the airport with half an hour to spare on our Copenhagen cards, and were glad we did: for the first time, a conductor came around and checked. He put several people off the train to purchase tickets on the platform and catch the next one. I felt vindicated. Icelandair got us safely to Reykjavik and on to Dulles, the only unpleasantness was the customs people in D.C. Ten days of being treated as adults had made us careless on re-entering the U.S.
What did we miss? There are two churches that we would have liked to see, both short train rides north of downtown. Grundtvigs Kirke is one of the great brick Arts & Crafts edifices, at the end of an esplanade of social housing. Jorn Utzon, architect of Sydney’s Opera House, designed the Bagsvaerd Kirke; photos of the indirectly-lit nave remind me of Steven Holl’s Chapel of St. Ignatius in Seattle. We never got to the western side of the city: in addition to shopping on Versterbrogade, there is an entire arts complex around the former Carlsberg Brewery that looks worthwhile.
What did we regret about Copenhagen? Not a lot, honestly. There are no public water fountains, even outside bathrooms. The coins are really hard to figure out, with denominations in such small type they are difficult to read in retail lighting. Taxes are high, but you don’t tip in restaurants, and VAT is refundable on large purchases, which help equalize the issue.
What did we love about Copenhagen? Baked goods, anywhere, savory or sweet or just plain bread. Courtesy, helpfulness, and a willingness to engage in English everywhere. There is order and efficiency, as in Berlin, but tempered by a smiling sense of humor which makes it kinder. I’ve barely mentioned them, but there are people on bicycles everywhere. Unlike in Amsterdam, they are polite and follow the rules: we were never intimidated by a bike on the sidewalk, and the few times someone rang a bell at us we realized we were in a busy bike lane. Still, there is a definite “lurk and look” posture pedestrians follow in Copenhagen when crossing the street, watching for bikes in the closest lane then cars and then maybe more bikes on the opposite side.
There are not a lot of “must see” sights here, so we can understand why some people think of Copenhagen as a one-day city. Like Venice, Bruges, or New Orleans, though, just being here is the event, soaking up the layers of building, the people, and the food. If you have never traveled to a non-English-speaking country, Copenhagen would be a great step into the world.