Sunday, April 26, 2009

Something awesome in the state of Denmark.

Photos of my wanderings through Copenhagen. Also provided at the end.

A few weeks ago Erin noticed there were some cheap flights headed out of Berlin for Copenhagen (or København as they spell it. I love getting to use the ø). Since the Berlin Conference ended in the middle of the week, it seemed like a waste to just turn around and only get a day of work in when we could be exploring a new country. A mass e-mail went out and the Copenhagen crew formed: Miya, an Art History grad student living in Heidelberg, Marty, an aspiring Aeronautical Engineer living in Stuttgart, Erin, an aspiring Chemist living in Aachen, Ashlan, also a Chemist but living in Mainz, and me, some bum who does something with old stuff in the former capital of Western Germany.

We easily found our way to the airport in Berlin then hopped over a chunk of Germany to finally touch down in the former Viking stronghold known as Copenhagen. I had been put in charge of drumming up accommodations and found the lovely Hotel Nebo, an affordable hotel (that “A” word is key in this city) situated near the train station. There I requested a family suite with room for five. We were issued a room with a fold out bed and a full-sized queen. There was just enough space between to the two to slide a cot. This turned the room into an enormous mattress covered with well-starched sheets and duvets.

After enjoying a standard breakfast of bread, cold cuts, and cereal we took to the streets in the direction of the National Museum. Along the way we discovered the first of many canals slicing through the city, fringed with clean homes displaying wide windows. My first impression of the city was of wide clean streets and massive, unshuttered widows. There isn’t a lot of light (especially in the winter) and the city is bent on capturing as many rays as possible when they’re available. There at the end of a sturdy stone bridge arching over the canal, sat one of the royal palaces
Christian IV's palace (now part of the halls of Parliament)

The National Museum is situated nearby and is Denmark’s Smithsonian (complete with free entry). There we went on a grand tour through human history from the first bipedal apes to, well, now. The “Prehistoric” section (the stuff that came before the Middle Ages. The Vikings didn’t to a whole lot of writing before the Christians came around, so they get to be prehistoric). The prehistoric Danes had a habit of pitching significant artifacts into the bogs that blanket the country as sacrifices to the gods. This means modern archeologists have the distinct pleasure of uncovering bog-people (mummies of the muck instead of the desert), precious jewels, and weapons. The early Danes even tilted a long boat into the mire and it’s now on display in a massive glass case in the exhibit hall.

A bog person who was tucked in for a lengthy sleep.

Other fun facts accrued while wandering the displays include the geography of Denmark which is a series of peninsulas and islands. Copenhagen actually sits on the island Zealand. This satiated a long-held quandary: Where is Old Zealand if there’s a New on? Now you know.

One of dozens of historically preserved rooms in the palace turned National Museum.

After cruising through centuries of history, punctuated by discussions of swords, hand axes, and crucifixes, we grabbed lunch at a hot dog stand. It’s the cheapest way to eat in the city, and we’re told it’s very authentic. The traditional Danish hot dog is a bright red, narrow sausage. At a family reunion a decade ago my Uncle Terry and Dad picked up the cheapest dogs they could find at the grocery store (priced per item, of course). The things were neon red and turned the water the color of fruit punch Kool Aid. Now I know they just wanted us to eat like the Danes.

I particularly loved all the toppings. The Germans' aren't fans of putting anything more than mustard on their wieners.

They probably could have taught us to talk like them as well. The language is a weird amalgam of English and German, so I felt like I should be able to understand the conversations around me, but never could.

Next we wandered around the oldest part of the city and stumbled upon the Nyhavn or “New Harbor.” Pastel-colored buildings line a narrow harbor that is stuffed with small sailing vessels. It looked like a postcard. Turns out it is.

We walked across a green and blooming park to the Statens Museum for Kunst or National Gallery. They focus on Dutch artists but have a little of everyone from Gothic through very contemporary stuff (Danish museums like to take you through huge swaths of history).
"Cain" by Julius Paulsen (1891). Impressionist Romanticism? (He's getting his mark by the by. Soon he'll head east to find a wife.)

"Christ in the Realm of the Dead" by Joakim Skovgaard (painted between 1891-1894). This painting was about fifteen feet tall and twenty five feet long. Epic and monumental.

The gallery featured one of the most brilliant museum lay-outs I’ve ever seen. When you picked a wing – we started with the Danish stuff – the first hall displayed a chronological arrangement of work with a few typical examples of eminent artists’ work from each time period. You walked through the room learning names while comparing techniques through time. The Baroque gave way to the Rococo to the Neo-Classical to the Romantic and so on. Then you radiated into ancillary rooms with paintings arranged according to theme. When I walked out, I felt like I could have an intelligent conversation about the approaches and visions of Danish artists who didn’t exist to me two or three hours earlier. The museum also featured a room of paintings displayed the way curators displayed their wares half a century ago, with tightly packed images piled all the way up a monumental wall. I can see why they changed things; people’s necks were getting worn out.

After more wandering around town, we found dinner at a restaurant on the Nyhavn called Cap Horn which featured its own brew and a hyper-attentive wait staff. We might have disappointed them a little by just going with one course, but it was delicious. I had “Cockerel from Bornholm.” At the time I didn’t know what a Cockerel was or where Bornholm is located. Turns out the former is a kind of small fowl and the later is an island of Denmark noted for their delicious birds. It’s good to know where your food hails from.

Dinner was followed by a trip to an ice cream place down the street. It seemed to be the only one around, so we dropped a few Kroner (Denmark’s not in the Euro zone) even though it didn’t seem to have much in the way of atmosphere as the staff, an older proprietor and an alert trainee, scooped our desert from the factory-issue tubs. We took the cones to the street even though a drizzle was getting started. As we walked through the Old Town, we walked by another gelato stand. This one was on the street and displayed beautiful mountains of the stuff, topped with fruit and chocolate. Miya regretted settling for the other stand, then we noticed the scoopers: the exact same employees we had left five minutes earlier. He was still joking with the customer. She was looking at his moves withintensely. We had feelings of de ja vu.

The day was wrapped up in a microbrewery on the main drag of town. Each beer set us back 70 Kroner (around 8 Euro). Needless to say, we didn’t have much. If a friend of mine was an alcoholic, I would send him to Copenhagen where no one can afford to get drunk (though the omnipresent bums by the train station decided to prove me wrong).

The next day we split up. Miya to wander and do some shopping, Erin, Ashlan, and Marty to explore Christiania, a hippie commune you’ll hear about later, and I headed to the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek. The Glyptotek was a private art collection (mostly Greek and Roman statuary) that was rounded up by the guy who founded Carlsberg beer. He later handed it all over to the state and it’s a place I need to go before I die (according to Ms. Schultz). I got there with half and hour until opening. I didn’t want to just stand around while there was a city to explore, so I set off, guidebook in hand, on a solo tour of the city.
The curving ascent to the telescope at Christian's observatory.

I found the Observatory, built by Christian IV, a king who launched an urban renewal project that made Copenhagen the envy of the Renaissance world. The tower features a spiral ramp (unique in Europe) that climbs six stories, offering a calf workout and one of the best views of the city. From there on a clear day, you can see Sweden. Of course, I didn’t have a clear day. I also saw a small art gallery in the observatory that featured images of Christiania. I decided I needed to follow Erin, Marty, and Ashlan into the commune.
A military parade I happened to stumble across as I headed to Christiania. They offered a nice contrast to the hippies.

In 1971, a bunch of hippies took over an abandoned military barracks and proclaimed it the “Freetown Christiania” calling themselves a free state, separate from Denmark. Until 2004, a farmers market filled the main square with most stands hawking their favorite crop: Cannabis. Recently, right-wing leaders have been in charge of city politics in Copenhagen, and they cracked down on the self-proclaimed state that acts as the number one tourist draw in Copenhagen (even after a zero tolerance policy was adopted for soft drugs on Pusher Street, the spot where, you know, pushing happened).

I took a stroll around a small wetland, and dropped into the Freetown from the residential area. There I saw a lot of graffiti, both artful and obnoxious. Shacks were cobbled together, sharing space with the barracks and piles of bikes and junk. It had a vaguely bohemian vibe, but it also felt a little past its prime, like the current residents are trying to force a trip back to the heady ‘70s. Pusher street was decorated with head shops, souvenir stands, and oil drums keeping the residents warm. It wasn’t a particularly chilly morning, and I thought this last touch was a little unnecessary, as if the guys warming their hands were trying to conform to some inner vision of how they should live in a commune rather than how they want to. One of them asked, “You need anything, man?” “Nope. I’m good, thanks.” Apparently the farmers still have a market.

Everyone reconvened for lunch at Zoo Bar, a small, trendy spot with delicious hamburgers, but I don’t care to tell you how much they set us back. Just know they were delicious. Erin, Marty, Ashlan, and I compared notes on Christiania. They had walked in through the main gate (“You are now leaving the EU, Welcome to Christiania!”) and immediately saw the fires. The shady guys standing around the drums didn’t look like happy hippies, so they decided not to investigate much further.

Then I had a brainwave. We still hadn’t seen the Little Mermaid statue, the symbol of Copenhagen and tribute to one of the city’s favorite sons: Hans Christian Anderson. The small statue sits in far out in the harbor, searching the ships for her prince. We had an hour before we needed to catch out train for Hamburg. I thought we could make it.

Ashlan and Miya decided to hit the shops instead leaving Erin, Marty, and I. Now, I’m a pretty fast walker. I have the nerd shuffle-run down pat. Erin and I became friends in Marburg because we inevitably drifted to the front of large groups. Marty can normally keep a healthy pace, but had an unfortunate run in with a tree while sledding the previous week, leaving him with a bit of limp. We didn’t think that would be a problem. The statue wasn’t that far out of town. Turns out she was.

I should also qualify that my watch battery had died the week before and I hadn’t found a place to fix it before leaving, so I was relying on my phone to act as a pocket watch. I’m not used to checking my pocket for the time.

We strode towards the harbor with purpose, stopping to take pictures at the palace and cathedral. As we walked through the streets, I kept the map in front of me to keep an eye on our route. When we finally reached the park on the edge of town, Erin asked a key question, “What time is it?” It was too late. We only had 20 minutes to cover more ground than we had walked in 30. I waffled. We were close. I was sure she was over the hill. Erin’s look reminded me we couldn’t mess around. We abandoned the cause and power walked back over our path. For the record, there is no public transportation to or from the Little Mermaid. There are also no cabs in the Old Town of Copenhagen.

Again I was in the lead with the map, studying non-existent bus routs. Erin came next, fuming at my stupidity. Marty brought up the rear, gamely hauling his reluctant leg. Time slipped through our fingers as we ducked and wove through a packed crowd. People kept shooting us, “What’s their problem?” looks. Clearly we wouldn’t normally choose to scamper through Copenhagen. We had someplace to be and soon. If we missed our train, who knew when the next one ran? Next time you’re passed by a pedestrian in a hurry, cut them some slack.

We reached the edge of the old part of town. Erin had sent a text message to Ashlan, asking her and Miya to grab our stuff from the hotel. We were finally able to flag a taxi. We told him, “Main Train Station, please.” He looked confused. “But it is right there.” He pointed past the square to a point four blocks away. “We know, we need to get there quickly.” “But it is right there.” I resisted the temptation to just scream, “Go!” We finally rolled into traffic with the most reluctant and pokey cabbie I’ve ever encountered. He took his time circling the building, finally dumping us in the parking lot. “Thanks!” and I flung my remaining Kroner in his direction.

We ran to the platform with five minutes to go. Our train was already waiting on the track. Up and down the platform. No Miya. No Ashlan. Erin and I ran back, leaving Marty to wait for them. As we hauled ourselves up the stairs, Ashland and Miya swung into view. “There you are. Did you guys know Marty’s bag is still at the hotel?” “Yeah, yeah we do,” and we were sprinting through the station. The hotel is a block and a half from the station. We plowed through the front door and dove into the luggage check. I threw my bag over one shoulder and Marty’s over the other. As I barreled towards the door, a pedestrian poked his head around the corner, looking through the glass. I thought he saw me coming. He didn’t.

As Marty’s bag slammed into him, he yelled something (presumably rude) after me, “Sorry Man!” Erin heard my angry, frustrated tone and thought I had somehow acquired a few Danish curses over the previous two days. We ran on, our thighs starting to rebel against all that work. We didn’t listen. Leaping down the stairs, the train was still on the track. Miya and Marty were leaning out the door, blocking it from closing. We dove in, flinging luggage and sweat. We were Hamburg bound.

Photo documentation of the wanderings.

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